Negative thoughts speed up brain aging, neurodegeneration

Some people tend to be more emotionally open than others, but pretty much everyone has to face their feelings at some time or another. Negative emotions, anxiety, or the occasional bout of depression may be unavoidable in life, but fascinating new findings show how managing emotions can help limit neurodegeneration and slow down brain aging.

Neuroscientists at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) observed how the brains of both young and older adults activated when confronted with the psychological suffering of others. Among older study subjects, neuronal connections displayed significant emotional inertia. In other words, negative emotions felt by those older adults appear to have excessively modified their neuronal connections over an extended period of time. This trend was most pronounced in the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala. Both of those brain regions are strongly involved in managing emotions and autobiographical memory.

Study authors explain that these results indicate better management of negative emotions, via meditation for example, may help curb neurodegeneration. This work is just the latest in modern science’s efforts to better understand the brain; researchers have been investigating how the brain reacts to emotions for the past two decades.

‘‘We are beginning to understand what happens at the moment of perception of an emotional stimulus,’’ explains Dr. Olga Klimecki, a researcher at the UNIGE’s Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences and at the Deutsches Zentrum für Neurodegenerative Erkrankungen, last author of this study carried out as part of a European research project co-directed by the UNIGE, in a university release. ‘‘However, what happens afterwards remains a mystery. How does the brain switch from one emotion to another? How does it return to its initial state? Does emotional variability change with age? What are the consequences for the brain of mismanagement of emotions?’’

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