Is training to alter brain activity the future of controlling stress?

by L&D16 Sep 2016
Meditation, humour and drinking a hot cup of chamomile tea are just some methods people use to deal with stress in the workplace.

But what if people could be taught to alter their brain activity?

It could be an effective and affordable way to help them control stress, according to researchers from Tel-Aviv University. 

However, treating stress-related problems requires accessing the brain's “emotional hub”, the amygdala.

This is located deep in the brain and difficult to reach with typical neurofeedback methods.

This type of activity has normally only been measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which is expensive and hard to access.

However, this study tested a new imaging method that provided “reliable neurofeedback on the level of amygdala activity” using electroencephalography (EEG).

It worked by allowing people to alter their own emotional responses through self-regulation of its activity.

"The major advancement of this new tool is the ability to use a low-cost and accessible imaging method such as EEG to depict deeply located brain activity," according to the researchers Dr. Talma Hendler of Tel-Aviv University and Jackob Keynan, a PhD student in Hendler's laboratory.

The researchers improved upon a new imaging tool they had developed in a previous study that uses EEG to measure changes in amygdala activity, indicated by its "electrical fingerprint".

By using the new tool, 42 participants were trained to reduce an auditory feedback corresponding to their amygdala activity using "any mental strategies they found effective".

During this neurofeedback task, the participants learned to modulate their own amygdala electrical activity.

Moreover, in another experiment with 40 participants, the researchers showed that learning to "downregulate amygdala activity" could actually improve behavioural emotion regulation.

They showed this using a behavioural task invoking emotional processing in the amygdala. The findings demonstrate that with this new imaging tool, people can modify "both the neural processes and behavioural manifestations of their emotions".

John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, said "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."

In particular, the mobility and low cost of EEG make it a potential for a home-stationed bedside treatment for recent trauma patients or for "stress resilience training" for people prone to stress.

The study is published in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry.