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This past year has seen significant advances in our understanding of the physiology of emotion. Attention continues to focus on the amygdala and its interconnections with prefrontal cortical regions. New evidence underscores the importance of lateralization for emotion. There are also new findings on the physiological predictors of individual differences in emotional behavior and experience, and on the role of autonomic arousal in emotional memory.
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Experientially opening oneself to pain rather than avoiding it is said to reduce the mind's tendency toward avoidance or anxiety which can further exacerbate the experience of pain. This is a central feature of mindfulness-based therapies. Little is known about the neural mechanisms of mindfulness on pain. During a meditation practice similar to mindfulness, functional magnetic resonance imaging was used in expert meditators (>10,000 h of practice) to dissociate neural activation patterns associated with pain, its anticipation, and habituation. Compared to novices, expert meditators reported equal pain intensity, but less unpleasantness. This difference was associated with enhanced activity in the dorsal anterior insula (aI), and the anterior mid-cingulate (aMCC) the so-called 'salience network', for experts during pain. This enhanced activity during pain was associated with reduced baseline activity before pain in these regions and the amygdala for experts only. The reduced baseline activation in left aI correlated with lifetime meditation experience. This pattern of low baseline activity coupled with high response in aIns and aMCC was associated with enhanced neural habituation in amygdala and pain-related regions before painful stimulation and in the pain-related regions during painful stimulation. These findings suggest that cultivating experiential openness down-regulates anticipatory representation of aversive events, and increases the recruitment of attentional resources during pain, which is associated with faster neural habituation.
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The present investigation examined the contributions of specific attentional networks to long-term trait effects of meditation. It was hypothesized that meditation could improve the efficiency of executive processing (inhibits prepotent/incorrect responses) or orientational processing (orients to specific objects in the attentional field). Participants (50 meditators and 10 controls) were given the Stroop (measures executive attention) and Global-Local Letters (measures orientational attention) tasks. Results showed that meditation experience was associated with reduced interference on the Stroop task (p < 0.03), in contrast with a lack of effect on interference in the Global-Local Letters task. This suggests that meditation produces long-term increases in the efficiency of the executive attentional network (anterior cingulate/prefrontal cortex) but no effect on the orientation network (parietal systems). The amount of time participants spent meditating each day, rather than the total number of hours of meditative practice over their lifetime, was negatively correlated with interference on the Stroop task (r = −0.31, p < 0.005).

We recently reported the presence of reliable asymmetries in frontal-brain electrical activity in infants that distinguished between certain positive- and negative-affect elicitors. In order to explore the degree to which these asymmetries in brain activity are associated with individual differences in affective response, 35 ten-month-old female infants were presented with a stranger-approach, mother-approach, and maternal-separation experience while an electroencephalogram (EEG) from the left- and right-frontal and left- and right-parietal scalp regions was recorded and facial and other behavioral responses were videotaped. Changes in frontal-EEG asymmetry reflected behavioral changes between conditions. In addition, individual differences in affective response to separation were related to differences in frontal-brain asymmetries. These findings indicate that lawful changes exist in asymmetries of frontal-brain activation during the expression of certain emotions in the first year of life and that individual differences in emotional responsivity are related to these measures of brain activity.
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The relation between brain activity and the immune system was evaluated by assessing immune responses in 20 healthy women who manifested extreme differences in the asymmetry of frontal cortex activation. One group showed extreme and stable left frontal activation; the other group showed extreme and stable right frontal activation. As predicted, women with extreme right frontal activation had significantly lower levels of natural killer cell activity (at effector:target cell ratios of 33:1 and 11:1) than did left frontally activated individuals. This difference did not extend to two other immune measures, lymphocyte proliferation and T-cell subsets. However, higher immunoglobulin levels of the M class were observed in the right frontal group. In this study, the immune patterns could not be accounted for by plasma cortisol levels, anxiety- and depression-related symptomatology, or recent health histories. These findings support the hypothesis that there is a specific association between frontal brain asymmetry and certain immune responses.
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The prefrontal cortex (PFC) has been well known for its role in higher order cognition, affect regulation and social reasoning. Although the precise underpinnings have not been sufficiently described, increasing evidence also supports a prefrontal involvement in the regulation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Here we investigate the PFC's role in HPA axis regulation during a psychosocial stress exposure in 14 healthy humans. Regional brain metabolism was assessed using positron emission tomography (PET) and injection of fluoro-18-deoxyglucose (FDG). Depending on the exact location within the PFC, increased glucose metabolic rate was associated with lower or higher salivary cortisol concentration in response to a psychosocial stress condition. Metabolic glucose rate in the rostral medial PFC (mPFC) (Brodman area (BA) 9 and BA 10) was negatively associated with stress-induced salivary cortisol increases. Furthermore, metabolic glucose rate in these regions was inversely coupled with changes in glucose metabolic rate in other areas, known to be involved in HPA axis regulation such as the amygdala/hippocampal region. In contrast, metabolic glucose rate in areas more lateral to the mPFC was positively associated with saliva cortisol. Subjective ratings on task stressfulness, task controllability and self-reported dispositional mood states also showed positive and negative associations with the glucose metabolic rate in prefrontal regions. These findings suggest that in humans, the PFC is activated in response to psychosocial stress and distinct prefrontal metabolic glucose patterns are linked to endocrine stress measures as well as subjective ratings on task stressfulness, controllability as well as dispositional mood states.
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Freezing is an adaptive defensive behavior that is expressed in response to an imminent threat. In prior studies with rhesus monkeys, stable individual differences in animals' propensities to freeze have been demonstrated. To understand the factors associated with these individual differences, freezing behavior was examined in infant rhesus monkeys and their mothers, in conjunction with levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol. In both mothers and infants, basal cortisol levels were positively correlated with freezing duration. Additionally, the number of offspring a mother had was negatively correlated with her infant's cortisol level. These findings suggest a link between basal cortisol levels and an animal's propensity to freeze, as well as a mechanism by which maternal experience may affect infants' cortisol levels.
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Based upon suggestions that the two cerebral hemispheres may be differentially involved in the perception and regulation of autonomic activity, three studies were designed to explore differences in the relationship between left versus right hand finger tapping and the heartbeat. In each study, right-handed subjects were asked to tap with either their left versus right forefingers regularly at the rate of approximately once per second. When the time from the R-spike immediately preceding their tap to the tap was examined, a significant difference between the two hands was obtained in two of the studies, with the left hand tapping closer to the last R-spike compared with the right. A variety of additional conditions in the experiments suggest that this effect may depend upon tapping rhythmically. The implications of these findings for the differential role of the left and right hemispheres in the perception and regulation of cardiac activity are considered.
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Based on previous findings in humans and rhesus monkeys suggesting that diazepam has asymmetrical effects on frontal lobe activity and other literature supporting a role for the benzodiazepine system in the mediation of individual differences in anxiety and fearfulness, the relation between asymmetrical changes in scalp-recorded regional brain activity in response to diazepam and the temperamental dimension of behavioral inhibition indexed by freezing time in 9 rhesus monkeys was examined. Animals showed greater relative left-sided frontal activation in response to diazepam compared with the preceding baseline. The magnitude of this shift was strongly correlated with an aggregate measure of freezing time (r = .82). The implications of these findings for understanding the role of regional differences in the benzodiazepine system in mediating individual differences in fearfulness are discussed.
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Practitioners understand “meditation,” or mental training, to be a process of familiarization with one's own mental life leading to long-lasting changes in cognition and emotion. Little is known about this process and its impact on the brain. Here we find that long-term Buddhist practitioners self-induce sustained electroencephalographic high-amplitude gamma-band oscillations and phase-synchrony during meditation. These electroencephalogram patterns differ from those of controls, in particular over lateral frontoparietal electrodes. In addition, the ratio of gamma-band activity (25-42 Hz) to slow oscillatory activity (4-13 Hz) is initially higher in the resting baseline before meditation for the practitioners than the controls over medial frontoparietal electrodes. This difference increases sharply during meditation over most of the scalp electrodes and remains higher than the initial baseline in the postmeditation baseline. These data suggest that mental training involves temporal integrative mechanisms and may induce short-term and long-term neural changes.
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A long-standing problem in stress research has been that individuals' reports of their tendencies to become anxious are often inconsistent with relevant behavioral and physiological indices. This study investigated the distinction between (a) truly low-anxious Ss, who report low trait anxiety on the Taylor Manifest Anxiety Scale and low defensiveness on the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale, and (b) repressors, who report low anxiety but high defensiveness. These groups were compared with a moderately high-anxious one. Heart rate, spontaneous skin resistance responses, and forehead muscle tension were recorded from 40 male college students during a phrase association task. Significant differences in the 3 physiological measures as well as in 3 behavioral ones (reaction time, content avoidance, and verbal interference) all indicated that the repressors were more stressed than the low-anxious Ss despite their claims of lower trait anxiety. The high-anxious group exhibited a 3rd pattern suggesting an intermediate level of anxious responding. These data document the need to distinguish between repressors and truly low-anxious persons in research concerned with relations between self-reported anxiety and behavioral and physiological responses to stress. (42 ref)
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A new framework for maintaining mental health and well-being.From the author of the internationally-acclaimed best-selling text The Developing Mind, and esteemed leader and educator in the field of mental health, comes the first book ever to integrate neuroscience research with the ancient art of mindfulness. The result is a groundbreaking approach to not simply mental health, but life in general, which shows readers how personal awareness and attunement can actually stimulate emotional circuits in the brain, leading to a host of physiological benefits, including greater well-being, resilience, emotional balance, and improved cardiac and immune function. For clinicians and laypeople alike, Siegel’s illuminating discussions of the power of the focused mind provide a wealth of ideas that can transform our lives and deepen our connections with others, and with ourselves.
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Anxiety is a debilitating symptom of many psychiatric disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, mood disorders, schizophrenia, and autism. Anxiety involves changes in both central and peripheral biology, yet extant functional imaging studies have focused exclusively on the brain. Here we show, using functional brain and cardiac imaging in sequential brain and cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) sessions in response to cues that predict either threat (a possible shock) or safety (no possibility of shock), that MR signal change in the amygdala and the prefrontal and insula cortices predicts cardiac contractility to the threat of shock. Participants with greater MR signal change in these regions show increased cardiac contractility to the threat versus safety condition, a measure of the sympathetic nervous system contribution to the myocardium. These findings demonstrate robust neural-cardiac coupling during induced anxiety and indicate that individuals with greater activation in brain regions identified with aversive emotion show larger magnitude cardiac contractility increases to threat.
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Aversive Pavlovian conditioning is an important tool used to investigate neurobiological mechanisms underlying the acquisition and expression of fear. Most studies have used nonprimate species employing electrical shock as the unconditioned stimulus (US). Although important advances have been made in understanding the neural substrates of conditioned fear, the extent to which these findings apply to primates is unclear. Research in primates has not progressed because of the lack of a conditioning paradigm that does not use shock. Therefore, we developed a method that uses a US consisting of a loud noise coupled with a stream of compressed air aimed at the face to aversively condition heart rate response in rhesus monkeys. With this US, rhesus monkeys rapidly acquire a conditioned bradycardia. The availability of an easy, reliable, and efficient method of aversive conditioning that does not require electrical shock, will facilitate studies investigating neurobiological mechanisms underlying the acquisition and expression of fear in primates.
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Reviews selective behavioral, psychophysiological, and neuropsychological research bearing on how affective space should be parsed. Neither facial expression nor autonomic nervous system activity is found to provide unique markers for particular discrete emotions. The dimensions of approach and withdrawal are introduced as fundamental systems relevant to differentiating affective space. The role of frontal and anterior temporal asymmetries in mediating approach- and withdrawal-related emotion is considered. Individual differences in tonic anterior activation asymmetry are present and are relatively stable over time. Such differences are associated with an individual's propensity to display different types of emotion, mood, and psychopathology. The conceptual and methodological implications of this perspective are considered.
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