SEP 20, 2016 4:24 AM PDT

Training the Brain to Reduce Stress

Can we train our brains? While there has been some controversy over pay-to-play brain training games and programs that promise better memory and focus, new research suggests that we can calm the electrical activity in one part of the brain. Being able to influence this electrical activity could be the key to reducing stress. Called neurofeedback, it involves using the stimuli of certain audio or visual signals, to control brain activity, hopefully resulting in less stress. Patients suffering from PTSD could benefit from this kind of treatment and it doesn’t cause negative side effects like many medications.
 Reducing stress with neurofeedback
In order to use neurofeedback for stress issues, the region of the brain that needs to be engaged is the amygdala. It’s in this part of the brain that emotions are processed. It’s much like a traffic hub, where signals of worry, stress and fear are processed along with those of happiness and contentment. It’s difficult to measure activity in this part of the brain because of its location. It’s normally only observed on functional MRI scans, which are not always available in a clinical setting.
 
A study led by Dr. Talma Hendler of Tel-Aviv University in Israel and The Sagol Brain Center at Sourasky Medical Center was  published recently in the journal Biological Psychiatry. This study used neurofeedback on the electrical activity of the amygdala that was obtained via electroencephalography (EEG). Their results were favorable and showed that some adults could calm certain emotions by getting this feedback and using it to self-regulate their stress levels and responses.
 
The study made use of a new imaging method developed in prior research that uses EEG readings to measure changes in amygdala activity. Essentially the team was able to identify specific identifiable electrical patterns, calling them an “electrical fingerprint”. The study worked with 42 participants who were trained to use mental strategies when an auditory signal indicated a stress pattern in the amygdala.

Using this neurofeedback study volunteers were able to actually impact and successfully modulate the electrical activity in the amygdala that indicated stress. The team also found that blood oxygen levels in signals from the amygdala were regulated as well. This was detected and measured through functional MRI scans.
 
The research went a step further in another segment that used 40 participants were who not only were able to down regulate the activity in the amygdala, but were also able to change their behavioral response to certain emotions as well. It was this part of the study that showed that not only are people able to modulate the neural process of emotions, but they are also able to carry that over into behavioral responses to those emotions.
 
In a press release, John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry  stated, “We have long known that there might be ways to tune down the amygdala through biofeedback, meditation, or even the effects of placebos. It is an exciting idea that perhaps direct feedback on the level of activity of the amygdala can be used to help people gain control of their emotional responses.”
 
One limitation of the study was that all volunteers who participated were healthy, so more work needs to be done with patients who have experienced real trauma, but the initial results show that there is much to be learned in this area. The video below talks more about the study.

Sources: UPI HealthDispatch WeeklyElsevierBiological Psychiatry
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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