Brains can be trained to improve their ability to ignore irrelevant information, resulting in reduced neurological reactions to emotional events, according to an Israeli neuropsychologist whose collaborative PhD research is the first study to demonstrate that this effect is possible to achieve through non-emotional training.

Noga Cohen’s study also showed that the same simple computer-training task can change the brain’s wiring, strengthening neural connections between brain regions involved in inhibiting emotional reactions.

In the study, the brains of 26 healthy volunteers were monitored before and after multiple computerized training sessions using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The training involved a non-emotional “executive control task” of identifying whether a target arrow points to the right or to the left, while ignoring the direction of arrows on either side of it. A resting-state fMRI scan assessed connections between brain regions during no specific task and later during an emotional reactivity task in which participants were asked to ignore negative pictures.

“As expected, participants who completed the more intense version of the training (but not the other participants) showed reduced activation in their amygdala – a brain region involved in negative emotions, including sadness and anxiety. In addition, the intense training resulted in increased connectivity between participants’ amygdala and a region in the frontal cortex shown to be involved in emotion regulation,” reported Cohen.

Help for depression, anxiety

The researchers hope to examine the impact of this non-emotional training on depressed or anxious individuals. They say it may also be helpful for people at high risk of increased blood pressure in reaction to emotional information.

“Such future directions carry important potential clinical implications for a large percentage of the population,” said Cohen, who conducted the study at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Cognitive Neuropsychology Lab under the supervision of Prof. Avishai Henik. “This cognitive training can be easily employed with different populations, such as children, elderly adults, and individuals with neurological or psychiatric disorders.”

Other contributors to the paper about the study, published  in the journal NeuroImage, are from the University of Haifa, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany and the National University of Singapore.

A previous study led by these authors has already shown that similar training can reduce the tendency to get stuck in a repetitive-thinking cycle about a negative life event.

“It is our hope that the current work would lead to further testing and potentially the development of effective intervention for individuals suffering from maladaptive emotional behavior,” Cohen said.

“While acknowledging the limitations of this study, which was based on a relatively small number of healthy participants and focused on short-term effects of the training, this may prove effective for individuals suffering from emotion dysregulation.”

“Using Executive Control Training to Suppress Amygdala Reactivity to Aversive Information” was funded by the German Academic Exchange Service, International Brain Research Organization, and Minerva. The research was also supported by grants from Marie Curie Actions and from the Young Investigator Research program of the National Institute for Psychobiology in Israel.