Accentuating the positive: fMRI investigation

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  • Published: May 1, 2017
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Accentuating the positive: fMRI investigation

Functional feelings

Functional MRI has been used to measure the activity in different regions of the brain of subjects shown disturbing images of violence - war and accidents - in an investigation aimed at understanding how poor sleep in anxiety and depression might make it harder for people to see the world positively.

Functional MRI has been used to measure the activity in different regions of the brain of subjects shown disturbing images of violence - war and accidents - in an investigation aimed at understanding how poor sleep in anxiety and depression might make it harder for people to see the world positively.

Most people feel and function more effectively on a good night's sleep, a lack of sleep can make everyday tasks more difficult. Chronic insomnia makes focusing on and finishing assignments difficult and reduces our ability to cope with even the smallest of problems, which can become monumental tasks in the mind of the sleepless. Worse still is the insomnia that might be associated with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression where positive feelings can be stifled and enjoyment of life reduced significantly often in debilitating ways. Little is known however about whether or how poor sleep affects specific regions of the brain known to be involved in regulating a person's negative emotional responses to stress and situations.

Now, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine have found that this area of the brain, known as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, may have to work harder to modify negative emotional responses in people with poor sleep who have depression or anxiety. Details of the study are reported in the journal Depression and Anxiety.

Insomnia

The research team of Heide Klumpp, Julia Roberts, Mary Kapella, Amy Kennedy, Anand Kumar, and Luan Phan used fMRI to measure the activity in different regions of the brain as subjects were challenged with an emotion-regulation task. 78 participants aged 18 to 65 years, diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, a major depressive disorder, or both, were shown "disturbing" images of violence - from war or accidents - and were asked to simply look at the images and not to try to control their reaction nor to "reappraise" what they saw in a more positive light. An example of such reappraisal would be to see an image of a woman with a badly bruised face and imagine her as an actress in makeup for a role, rather than as a survivor of violence.

"Reappraisal is something that requires significant mental energy," Klummp explains. "In people with depression or anxiety, reappraisal can be even more difficult, because these disorders are characterized by chronic negativity or negative rumination, which makes seeing the good in things difficult."

Negative regulation

The participants also completed a questionnaire to assess their sleep over the previous month. A motion-sensing device called an actigraph measured their awake time in bed, or "sleep efficiency", over a six-day period. The results from the questionnaire suggested that three out of four participants met criteria for significant sleep disturbance, and the actigraph results suggested the majority had insomnia. The team found that those patients who reported poorer sleep on the questionnaire were seen to have less brain activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex during the reappraisal task, while those with lower sleep efficiency based on the actigraph data had higher activity in the DACC.

"Because the questionnaire and actigraph measure different aspects of the sleep experience, it is not surprising that brain activity also differed between these measures," Klumpp adds. "The questionnaire asks about sleep over the previous month, and answers can be impacted by current mood. Plus, respondents may not be able to accurately remember how they slept a month ago. The actigraph objectively measures current sleep, so the results from both measurements may not match." It could be, however, that higher DACC activity in participants with lower levels of sleep efficiency could mean that the DACC is working harder to carry out reappraisal, which is a demanding mental task.

"Our research indicates sleep might play an important role in the ability to regulate negative emotions in people who suffer from anxiety or depression," Klumpp says.

Klumpp told SpectroscopyNOW that, "the overarching goal is to continue with these types of studies to better understand the impact of sleep on neural mechanisms involved in regulating mood to help prevent the development of excessive negative mood or mitigate negative mood in individuals who suffer from clinical anxiety or depression. We hope this work will also highlight the importance of sleep and, relatedly, basic steps people can take to improve sleep habits."

Related Links

Depression Anxiety 2017, online: "Subjective and objective sleep quality modulate emotion regulatory brain function in anxiety and depression"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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