Brain can be trained to regulate negative emotions, Israeli study finds

Ben Gurion University researchers say simple exercises can create new neural connections, helping the brain ignore irrelevant information

Illustrative image of a researcher checking fMRI images. (Wikimedia commons)
Illustrative image of a researcher checking fMRI images. (Wikimedia commons)

Simple brain-training exercises on a computer can directly and positively influence one’s ability to regulate and manage negative emotional reactions, researchers from Ben Gurion University in Beersheba have found.

Dr. Noga Cohen, the author of a study recently published in the journal NeuroImage, said non-emotional training can alter neural connections and help the brain ignore irrelevant information, reducing brain reactions to emotional events.

As part of the study, 26 healthy adults were required to perform non-emotional training tasks focused on improving the ability to ignore irrelevant information: The brains of the participants were monitored as they were asked to identify whether a target arrow pointed to the right or the left, ignoring the directions of other arrows around it.

The participants were then tested again while performing an emotional activity task in which they had to ignore negative pictures used to study emotion.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, researchers assessed the connections between different regions of the brain during both exercises.

“These findings are the first to demonstrate that non-emotional training which improves the ability to ignore irrelevant information can result in reduced brain reactions to emotional events and alter brain connections,” Cohen said.

Cohen and her team also used the results to research the impact of the non-emotional training on individuals suffering from anxiety and depression, and believe their findings could also help those at high risk of developing high blood pressure reactions to emotional information.

While Cohen acknowledged the limitations of the study — which was based on a relatively small number of healthy participants and focused on short-term effects of the training — she hoped the research would “lead to further testing and potentially the development of effective intervention for individuals suffering from maladaptive emotional behavior.”

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