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<p>Many powerful human emotional thoughts are generated in the absence of a precipitating event in the environment. Here, we tested whether we can decode the valence of internally driven, self-generated thoughts during task-free rest based on neural similarities with task-related affective mental states. We acquired functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data while participants generated positive and negative thoughts as part of an attribution task (Session A) and while they reported the occurrence of comparable mental states during task-free rest periods (Session B). With the use of multivariate pattern analyses (MVPA), we identified response patterns in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) that encode the affective content of thoughts that are generated in response to an external experimental cue. Importantly, these task driven response patterns reliably predicted the occurrence of affective thoughts generated during unconstrained rest periods recorded one week apart. This demonstrates that at least certain elements of task-cued and task-free affective experiences rely on a common neural code. Furthermore, our findings reveal the role that the mOFC plays in determining the affective tone of unconstrained thoughts. More generally, our results suggest that MVPA is an important methodological tool for attempts to understand unguided subject driven mental states such as mind-wandering and daydreaming based on neural similarities with task-based experiences.</p>
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Although empathy is crucial for successful social interactions, excessive sharing of others’ negative emotions may be maladaptive and constitute a source of burnout. To investigate functional neural plasticity underlying the augmentation of empathy and to test the counteracting potential of compassion, one group of participants was first trained in empathic resonance and subsequently in compassion. In response to videos depicting human suffering, empathy training, but not memory training (control group), increased negative affect and brain activations in anterior insula and anterior midcingulate cortex—brain regions previously associated with empathy for pain. In contrast, subsequent compassion training could reverse the increase in negative effect and, in contrast, augment self-reports of positive affect. In addition, compassion training increased activations in a non-overlapping brain network spanning ventral striatum, pregenual anterior cingulate cortex and medial orbitofrontal cortex. We conclude that training compassion may reflect a new coping strategy to overcome empathic distress and strengthen resilience.
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Although depressed mood is a normal occurrence in response to adversity in all individuals, what distinguishes those who are vulnerable to major depressive disorder (MDD) is their inability to effectively regulate negative mood when it arises. Investigating the neural underpinnings of adaptive emotion regulation and the extent to which such processes are compromised in MDD may be helpful in understanding the pathophysiology of depression. We report results from a functional magnetic resonance imaging study demonstrating left-lateralized activation in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) when downregulating negative affect in nondepressed individuals, whereas depressed individuals showed bilateral PFC activation. Furthermore, during an effortful affective reappraisal task, nondepressed individuals showed an inverse relationship between activation in left ventrolateral PFC and the amygdala that is mediated by the ventromedial PFC (VMPFC). No such relationship was found for depressed individuals, who instead show a positive association between VMPFC and amygdala. Pupil dilation data suggest that those depressed patients who expend more effort to reappraise negative stimuli are characterized by accentuated activation in the amygdala, insula, and thalamus, whereas nondepressed individuals exhibit the opposite pattern. These findings indicate that a key feature underlying the pathophysiology of major depression is the counterproductive engagement of right prefrontal cortex and the lack of engagement of left lateral-ventromedial prefrontal circuitry important for the downregulation of amygdala responses to negative stimuli.
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The development of social emotions such as compassion is crucial for successful social interactions as well as for the maintenance of mental and physical health, especially when confronted with distressing life events. Yet, the neural mechanisms supporting the training of these emotions are poorly understood. To study affective plasticity in healthy adults, we measured functional neural and subjective responses to witnessing the distress of others in a newly developed task (Socio-affective Video Task). Participants’ initial empathic responses to the task were accompanied by negative affect and activations in the anterior insula and anterior medial cingulate cortex—a core neural network underlying empathy for pain. Whereas participants reacted with negative affect before training, compassion training increased positive affective experiences, even in response to witnessing others in distress. On the neural level, we observed that, compared with a memory control group, compassion training elicited activity in a neural network including the medial orbitofrontal cortex, putamen, pallidum, and ventral tegmental area—brain regions previously associated with positive affect and affiliation. Taken together, these findings suggest that the deliberate cultivation of compassion offers a new coping strategy that fosters positive affect even when confronted with the distress of others.
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Areas associated with the default mode network (DMN) are substantially similar to those associated with meditation practice. However, no studies on DMN connectivity during resting states have been conducted on meditation practitioners. It was hypothesized that meditators would show heightened functional connectivity in areas of cortical midline activity. Thirty-five meditation practitioners and 33 healthy controls without meditation experience were included in this study. All subjects received 4.68-min resting state functional scanning runs. The posterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex were chosen as seed regions for the DMN map. Meditation practitioners demonstrated greater functional connectivity within the DMN in the medial prefrontal cortex area (x y z = 3 39 −21) than did controls. These results suggest that the long-term practice of meditation may be associated with functional changes in regions related to internalized attention even when meditation is not being practiced.

Those with high baseline stress levels are more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer's Disease (AD). While meditation may reduce stress and alter the hippocampus and default mode network (DMN), little is known about its impact in these populations. Our objective was to conduct a “proof of concept” trial to determine whether Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) would improve DMN connectivity and reduce hippocampal atrophy among adults with MCI. 14 adults with MCI were randomized to MBSR vs. usual care and underwent resting state fMRI at baseline and follow-up. Seed based functional connectivity was applied using posterior cingulate cortex as seed. Brain morphometry analyses were performed using FreeSurfer. The results showed that after the intervention, MBSR participants had increased functional connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and bilateral medial prefrontal cortex and left hippocampus compared to controls. In addition, MBSR participants had trends of less bilateral hippocampal volume atrophy than control participants. These preliminary results indicate that in adults with MCI, MBSR may have a positive impact on the regions of the brain most related to MCI and AD. Further research with larger sample sizes and longer-follow-up are needed to further investigate the results from this pilot study.
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Meditation is a mental training, which involves attention and the ability to maintain focus on a particular object. In this study we have applied a specific attentional task to simply measure the performance of the participants with different levels of meditation experience, rather than evaluating meditation practice per se or task performance during meditation. Our objective was to evaluate the performance of regular meditators and non-meditators during an fMRI adapted Stroop Word-Colour Task (SWCT), which requires attention and impulse control, using a block design paradigm. We selected 20 right-handed regular meditators and 19 non-meditators matched for age, years of education and gender. Participants had to choose the colour (red, blue or green) of single words presented visually in three conditions: congruent, neutral and incongruent. Non-meditators showed greater activity than meditators in the right medial frontal, middle temporal, precentral and postcentral gyri and the lentiform nucleus during the incongruent conditions. No regions were more activated in meditators relative to non-meditators in the same comparison. Non-meditators showed an increased pattern of brain activation relative to regular meditators under the same behavioural performance level. This suggests that meditation training improves efficiency, possibly via improved sustained attention and impulse control.

An emerging body of research suggests that mindfulness-based interventions may be beneficial for smoking cessation and the treatment of other addictive disorders. One way that mindfulness may facilitate smoking cessation is through the reduction of craving to smoking cues. The present work considers whether mindful attention can reduce self-reported and neural markers of cue-induced craving in treatment seeking smokers. Forty-seven (n = 47) meditation-naïve treatment-seeking smokers (12-h abstinent from smoking) viewed and made ratings of smoking and neutral images while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Participants were trained and instructed to view these images passively or with mindful attention. Results indicated that mindful attention reduced self-reported craving to smoking images, and reduced neural activity in a craving-related region of subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC). Moreover, a psychophysiological interaction analysis revealed that mindful attention reduced functional connectivity between sgACC and other craving-related regions compared to passively viewing smoking images, suggesting that mindfulness may decouple craving neurocircuitry when viewing smoking cues. These results provide an initial indication that mindful attention may describe a ‘bottom-up’ attention to one’s present moment experience in ways that can help reduce subjective and neural reactivity to smoking cues in smokers.

Studies have suggested that the default mode network is active during mind wandering, which is often experienced intermittently during sustained attention tasks. Conversely, an anticorrelated task-positive network is thought to subserve various forms of attentional processing. Understanding how these two systems work together is central for understanding many forms of optimal and sub-optimal task performance. Here we present a basic model of naturalistic cognitive fluctuations between mind wandering and attentional states derived from the practice of focused attention meditation. This model proposes four intervals in a cognitive cycle: mind wandering, awareness of mind wandering, shifting of attention, and sustained attention. People who train in this style of meditation cultivate their abilities to monitor cognitive processes related to attention and distraction, making them well suited to report on these mental events. Fourteen meditation practitioners performed breath-focused meditation while undergoing fMRI scanning. When participants realized their mind had wandered, they pressed a button and returned their focus to the breath. The four intervals above were then constructed around these button presses. We hypothesized that periods of mind wandering would be associated with default mode activity, whereas cognitive processes engaged during awareness of mind wandering, shifting of attention and sustained attention would engage attentional subnetworks. Analyses revealed activity in brain regions associated with the default mode during mind wandering, and in salience network regions during awareness of mind wandering. Elements of the executive network were active during shifting and sustained attention. Furthermore, activations during these cognitive phases were modulated by lifetime meditation experience. These findings support and extend theories about cognitive correlates of distributed brain networks.

SummaryObjectives To investigate neural representation evoked by acupuncture from human somatosensory cortices, especially from primary (SI) and secondary (SII) somatosensory areas. Design and setting Neuroimaging study – Blood-oxygenation-level-dependent (BOLD) functional MRI was performed during acupuncture on LI4 (n = 12 healthy participants). Sham acupuncture and innocuous tactile stimulation were also applied on the same acupuncture site as control comparisons. Outcome measures Responsive neural substrates were visualized and identified based on both individual and group-level surface activation maps. Results Discrete regions within the precentral gyrus (area 4) and the fundus of the central sulcus (area 3a) were selectively activated during the real acupuncture stimulation. In SII, the activation was extended in a postero-inferior direction to the fundus of the lateral sulcus. Conclusion This specific pattern of acupuncture-related activation indicates that deep tissue stimulation (as seen in area 3a activation) and concurrent processing of sensory stimulation (as seen in activation in SII) may mediate neural responses to manual acupuncture.
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<p>Empathy—the ability to share the feelings of others—is fundamental to our emotional and social lives. Previous human imaging studies focusing on empathy for others' pain have consistently shown activations in regions also involved in the direct pain experience, particularly anterior insula and anterior and midcingulate cortex. These findings suggest that empathy is, in part, based on shared representations for firsthand and vicarious experiences of affective states. Empathic responses are not static but can be modulated by person characteristics, such as degree of alexithymia. It has also been shown that contextual appraisal, including perceived fairness or group membership of others, may modulate empathic neuronal activations. Empathy often involves coactivations in further networks associated with social cognition, depending on the specific situation and information available in the environment. Empathy-related insular and cingulate activity may reflect domain-general computations representing and predicting feeling states in self and others, likely guiding adaptive homeostatic responses and goal-directed behavior in dynamic social contexts.</p>
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Objective: Mindfulness is a process whereby one is aware and receptive to present moment experiences. Although mindfulness-enhancing interventions reduce pathological mental and physical health symptoms across a wide variety of conditions and diseases, the mechanisms underlying these effects remain unknown. Converging evidence from the mindfulness and neuroscience literature suggests that labeling affect may be one mechanism for these effects. Methods: Participants (n = 27) indicated trait levels of mindfulness and then completed an affect labeling task while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging. The labeling task consisted of matching facial expressions to appropriate affect words (affect labeling) or to gender-appropriate names (gender labeling control task). Results: After controlling for multiple individual difference measures, dispositional mindfulness was associated with greater widespread prefrontal cortical activation, and reduced bilateral amygdala activity during affect labeling, compared with the gender labeling control task. Further, strong negative associations were found between areas of prefrontal cortex and right amygdala responses in participants high in mindfulness but not in participants low in mindfulness. Conclusions: The present findings with a dispositional measure of mindfulness suggest one potential neurocognitive mechanism for understanding how mindfulness meditation interventions reduce negative affect and improve health outcomes, showing that mindfulness is associated with enhanced prefrontal cortical regulation of affect through labeling of negative affective stimuli.

'Mindfulness' is a capacity for heightened present-moment awareness that we all possess to a greater or lesser extent. Enhancing this capacity through training has been shown to alleviate stress and promote physical and mental well-being. As a consequence, interest in mindfulness is growing and so is the need to better understand it. This study employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify the brain regions involved in state mindfulness and to shed light on its mechanisms of action. Significant signal decreases were observed during mindfulness meditation in midline cortical structures associated with interoception, including bilateral anterior insula, left ventral anterior cingulate cortex, right medial prefrontal cortex, and bilateral precuneus. Significant signal increase was noted in the right posterior cingulate cortex. These findings lend support to the theory that mindfulness achieves its positive outcomes through a process of disidentification.

Meditation comprises a series of practices mainly developed in eastern cultures aiming at controlling emotions and enhancing attentional processes. Several authors proposed to divide meditation techniques in focused attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM) techniques. Previous studies have reported differences in brain networks underlying FA and OM. On the other hand common activations across different meditative practices have been reported. Despite differences between forms of meditation and their underlying cognitive processes, we propose that all meditative techniques could share a central process that would be supported by a core network for meditation since their general common goal is to induce relaxation, regulating attention and developing an attitude of detachment from one’s own thoughts. To test this hypothesis, we conducted a quantitative meta-analysis based on activation likelihood estimation (ALE) of 10 neuroimaging studies (91 subjects) on different meditative techniques to evidence the core cortical network subserving meditation. We showed activation of basal ganglia (caudate body), limbic system (enthorinal cortex) and medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). We discuss the functional role of these structures in meditation and we tentatively propose a neurocognitive model of meditation that could guide future research.

Concepts originating from ancient Eastern texts are now being explored scientifically, leading to new insights into mind/brain function. Meditative practice, often viewed as an emotion regulation strategy, has been associated with pain reduction, low pain sensitivity, chronic pain improvement, and thickness of pain-related cortices. Zen meditation is unlike previously studied emotion regulation techniques; more akin to ‘no appraisal’ than ‘reappraisal’. This implies the cognitive evaluation of pain may be involved in the pain-related effects observed in meditators. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging and a thermal pain paradigm we show that practitioners of Zen, compared to controls, reduce activity in executive, evaluative and emotion areas during pain (prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus). Meditators with the most experience showed the largest activation reductions. Simultaneously, meditators more robustly activated primary pain processing regions (anterior cingulate cortex, thalamus, insula). Importantly, the lower pain sensitivity in meditators was strongly predicted by reductions in functional connectivity between executive and pain-related cortices. Results suggest a functional decoupling of the cognitive-evaluative and sensory-discriminative dimensions of pain, possibly allowing practitioners to view painful stimuli more neutrally. The activation pattern is remarkably consistent with the mindset described in Zen and the notion of mindfulness. Our findings contrast and challenge current concepts of pain and emotion regulation and cognitive control; commonly thought to manifest through increased activation of frontal executive areas. We suggest it is possible to self-regulate in a more ‘passive’ manner, by reducing higher-order evaluative processes, as demonstrated here by the disengagement of anterior brain systems in meditators.

The phenomenon of empathy entails the ability to share the affective experiences of others. In recent years social neuroscience made considerable progress in revealing the mechanisms that enable a person to feel what another is feeling. The present review provides an in-depth and critical discussion of these findings. Consistent evidence shows that sharing the emotions of others is associated with activation in neural structures that are also active during the first-hand experience of that emotion. Part of the neural activation shared between self- and other-related experiences seems to be rather automatically activated. However, recent studies also show that empathy is a highly flexible phenomenon, and that vicarious responses are malleable with respect to a number of factors—such as contextual appraisal, the interpersonal relationship between empathizer and other, or the perspective adopted during observation of the other. Future investigations are needed to provide more detailed insights into these factors and their neural underpinnings. Questions such as whether individual differences in empathy can be explained by stable personality traits, whether we can train ourselves to be more empathic, and how empathy relates to prosocial behavior are of utmost relevance for both science and society.
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The human voice is one of the principal conveyers of social and affective communication. Yet relatively little is known about the neural circuitry that supports the recognition of different vocally expressed emotions. We conducted an FMRI study to examine the brain responses to vocal expressions of anger and happiness, and to test whether specific brain regions showed preferential engagement in the processing of one emotion over the other. We also tested the extent to which simultaneously presented facial expressions of the same or different emotions would enhance brain responses, and to what degree such responses depend on attention towards the vocal expression. Forty healthy individuals were scanned while listening to vocal expressions of anger or happiness, while at the same time watching congruent or discrepant facial expressions. Happy voices elicited significantly more activation than angry voices in right anterior and posterior middle temporal gyrus (MTG), left posterior MTG and right inferior frontal gyrus. Furthermore, for the left MTG region, happy voices were related to higher activation only when paired with happy faces. Activation in the left insula, left amygdala and hippocampus, and rostral anterior cingulate cortex showed an effect of selectively attending to the vocal stimuli. Our results identify a network of regions implicated in the processing of vocal emotion, and suggest a particularly salient role for vocal expressions of happiness.
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