amygdala

means "almond", so-named because of its shape and size. The amygdala is part of the basal ganglia, and is situated in the temporal lobe. It has many connections with other parts of the brain, most particularly with the limbic system, for which reason it is considered part of the limbic system (although not part of the limbic lobe itself). The amygdala is critically involved in computing the emotional significance of events, and recent research indicates it is responsible for the influence of emotion on perception, through its connections with those brain regions that process sensory experiences, thus "allowing perception of emotionally significant events to occur despite inattention.” Rat studies also suggest that the amygdala, in tandem with the orbitofrontal cortex, is involved in the forming of new associations between cues and outcomes - in other words, it is the work of the amygdala to teach us what happens to us when we do something.

Trauma changes the brain even in those without PTSD

  • A review of previous research has compared brain activity in those with PTSD who experienced trauma, those who experienced trauma but didn't develop PTSD, and those who never experienced trauma.
  • Those who had PTSD had differential activity in two brain regions.
  • Those who had experienced trauma had differential activity in several brain regions associated with emotional regulation, regardless of whether they'd developed PTSD.

A meta-analysis of studies reporting brain activity in individuals with a diagnosis of PTSD has revealed differences between the brain activity of individuals with PTSD and that of groups of both trauma-exposed (those who had experienced trauma but didn't have a diagnosis of PTSD) and trauma-naïve (those who hadn't experienced trauma) participants.

The critical difference between those who developed PTSD and those who experienced trauma but didn't develop PTSD lay in the basal ganglia. Specifically:

  • PTSD brains compared with trauma-exposed controls showed differentially active regions of the basal ganglia
  • trauma-exposed brains compared with trauma-naïve controls revealed differences in the right anterior insula, precuneus, cingulate and orbitofrontal cortices, all known to be involved in emotional regulation
  • PTSD brains compared with both control groups showed differences in activity in the amygdala and parahippocampal cortex.

The finding is consistent with other new evidence from the researchers, that other neuropsychiatric disorders were also associated with specific imbalances in specific brain networks.

The findings suggest that, while people who have experienced trauma may not meet the threshold for a diagnosis of PTSD, they may have similar changes within the brain, which might make them more vulnerable to PTSD if they experience a subsequent trauma.

The finding also suggests a different perspective on PTSD — that it “may not actually be abnormal or a 'disorder' but the brain's natural reaction to events and experiences that are abnormal”.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-08/uoo-tec080315.php

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Meditation can produce enduring changes in emotional processing

December, 2012

A new study provides more evidence that meditation changes the brain, and different types of meditation produce different effects.

More evidence that even an 8-week meditation training program can have measurable effects on the brain comes from an imaging study. Moreover, the type of meditation makes a difference to how the brain changes.

The study involved 36 participants from three different 8-week courses: mindful meditation, compassion meditation, and health education (control group). The courses involved only two hours class time each week, with meditation students encouraged to meditate for an average 20 minutes a day outside class. There was a great deal of individual variability in the total amount of meditation done by the end of the course (210-1491 minutes for the mindful attention training course; 190-905 minutes for the compassion training course).

Participants’ brains were scanned three weeks before the courses began, and three weeks after the end. During each brain scan, the volunteers viewed 108 images of people in situations that were either emotionally positive, negative or neutral.

In the mindful attention group, the second brain scan showed a decrease in activation in the right amygdala in response to all images, supporting the idea that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress. In the compassion meditation group, right amygdala activity also decreased in response to positive or neutral images, but, among those who reported practicing compassion meditation most frequently, right amygdala activity tended to increase in response to negative images. No significant changes were seen in the control group or in the left amygdala of any participant.

The findings support the idea that meditation can be effective in improving emotional control, and that compassion meditation can indeed increase compassionate feelings. Increased amygdala activation was also correlated with decreased depression scores in the compassion meditation group, which suggests that having more compassion towards others may also be beneficial for oneself.

The findings also support the idea that the changes brought about by meditation endure beyond the meditative state, and that the changes can start to occur quite quickly.

These findings are all consistent with other recent research.

One point is worth emphasizing, in the light of the difficulty in developing a training program that improves working memory rather than simply improving the task being practiced. These findings suggest that, unlike most cognitive training programs, meditation training might produce learning that is process-specific rather than stimulus- or task-specific, giving it perhaps a wider generality than most cognitive training.

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How emotion keeps some memories vivid

September, 2012

Emotionally arousing images that are remembered more vividly were seen more vividly. This may be because the amygdala focuses visual attention rather than more cognitive attention on the image.

We know that emotion affects memory. We know that attention affects perception (see, e.g., Visual perception heightened by meditation training; How mindset can improve vision). Now a new study ties it all together. The study shows that emotionally arousing experiences affect how well we see them, and this in turn affects how vividly we later recall them.

The study used images of positively and negatively arousing scenes and neutral scenes, which were overlaid with varying amounts of “visual noise” (like the ‘snow’ we used to see on old televisions). College students were asked to rate the amount of noise on each picture, relative to a specific image they used as a standard. There were 25 pictures in each category, and three levels of noise (less than standard, equal to standard, and more than standard).

Different groups explored different parameters: color; gray-scale; less noise (10%, 15%, 20% as compared to 35%, 45%, 55%); single exposure (each picture was only presented once, at one of the noise levels).

Regardless of the actual amount of noise, emotionally arousing pictures were consistently rated as significantly less noisy than neutral pictures, indicating that people were seeing them more clearly. This was true in all conditions.

Eye-tracking analysis ruled out the idea that people directed their attention differently for emotionally arousing images, but did show that more eye fixations were associated both with less noisy images and emotionally arousing ones. In other words, people were viewing emotionally important images as if they were less noisy.

One group of 22 students were given a 45-minute spatial working memory task after seeing the images, and then asked to write down all the details they could remember about the pictures they remembered seeing. The amount of detail they recalled was taken to be an indirect measure of vividness.

A second group of 27 students were called back after a week for a recognition test. They were shown 36 new images mixed in with the original 75 images, and asked to rate them as new, familiar, or recollected. They were also asked to rate the vividness of their recollection.

Although, overall, emotionally arousing pictures were not more likely to be remembered than neutral pictures, both experiments found that pictures originally seen as more vivid (less noise) were remembered more vividly and in more detail.

Brain scans from 31 students revealed that the amygdala was more active when looking at images rated as vivid, and this in turn increased activity in the visual cortex and in the posterior insula (which integrates sensations from the body). This suggests that the increased perceptual vividness is not simply a visual phenomenon, but part of a wider sensory activation.

There was another neural response to perceptual vividness: activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the posterior parietal cortex was negatively correlated with vividness. This suggests that emotion is not simply increasing our attentional focus, it is instead changing it by reducing effortful attentional and executive processes in favor of more perceptual ones. This, perhaps, gives emotional memories their different ‘flavor’ compared to more neutral memories.

These findings clearly need more exploration before we know exactly what they mean, but the main finding from the study is that the vividness with which we recall some emotional experiences is rooted in the vividness with which we originally perceived it.

The study highlights how emotion can sharpen our attention, building on previous findings that emotional events are more easily detected when visibility is difficult, or attentional demands are high. It is also not inconsistent with a study I reported on last year, which found some information needs no repetition to be remembered because the amygdala decrees it of importance.

I should add, however, that the perceptual effect is not the whole story — the current study found that, although perceptual vividness is part of the reason for memories that are vividly remembered, emotional importance makes its own, independent, contribution. This contribution may occur after the event.

It’s suggested that individual differences in these reactions to emotionally enhanced vividness may underlie an individual’s vulnerability to post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Group settings hurt expressions of intelligence, especially in women

March, 2012

Comparing performance on an IQ test when it is given under normal conditions and when it is given in a group situation reveals that IQ drops in a group setting, and for some (mostly women) it drops dramatically.

This is another demonstration of stereotype threat, which is also a nice demonstration of the contextual nature of intelligence. The study involved 70 volunteers (average age 25; range 18-49), who were put in groups of 5. Participants were given a baseline IQ test, on which they were given no feedback. The group then participated in a group IQ test, in which 92 multi-choice questions were presented on a monitor (both individual and group tests were taken from Cattell’s culture fair intelligence test). Each question appeared to each person at the same time, for a pre-determined time. After each question, they were provided with feedback in the form of their own relative rank within the group, and the rank of one other group member. Ranking was based on performance on the last 10 questions. Two of each group had their brain activity monitored.

Here’s the remarkable thing. If you gather together individuals on the basis of similar baseline IQ, then you can watch their IQ diverge over the course of the group IQ task, with some dropping dramatically (e.g., 17 points from a mean IQ of 126). Moreover, even those little affected still dropped some (8 points from a mean IQ of 126).

Data from the 27 brain scans (one had to be omitted for technical reasons) suggest that everyone was initially hindered by the group setting, but ‘high performers’ (those who ended up scoring above the median) managed to largely recover, while ‘low performers’ (those who ended up scoring below the median) never did.

Personality tests carried out after the group task found no significant personality differences between high and low performers, but gender was a significant variable: 10/13 high performers were male, while 11/14 low performers were female (remember, there was no difference in baseline IQ — this is not a case of men being smarter!).

There were significant differences between the high and low performers in activity in the amygdala and the right lateral prefrontal cortex. Specifically, all participants had an initial increase in amygdala activation and diminished activity in the prefrontal cortex, but by the end of the task, the high-performing group showed decreased amygdala activation and increased prefrontal cortex activation, while the low performers didn’t change. This may reflect the high performers’ greater ability to reduce their anxiety. Activity in the nucleus accumbens was similar in both groups, and consistent with the idea that the students had expectations about the relative ranking they were about to receive.

It should be pointed out that the specific feedback given — the relative ranking — was not a factor. What’s important is that it was being given at all, and the high performers were those who became less anxious as time went on, regardless of their specific ranking.

There are three big lessons here. One is that social pressure significantly depresses talent (meetings make you stupid?), and this seems to be worse when individuals perceive themselves to have a lower social rank. The second is that our ability to regulate our emotions is important, and something we should put more energy into. And the third is that we’ve got to shake ourselves loose from the idea that IQ is something we can measure in isolation. Social context matters.

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Reviving a failing sense of smell through training

January, 2012

A rat study reveals how training can improve or impair smell perception.

The olfactory bulb is in the oldest part of our brain. It connects directly to the amygdala (our ‘emotion center’) and our prefrontal cortex, giving smells a more direct pathway to memory than our other senses. But the olfactory bulb is only part of the system processing smells. It projects to several other regions, all of which are together called the primary olfactory cortex, and of which the most prominent member is the piriform cortex. More recently, however, it has been suggested that it would be more useful to regard the olfactory bulb as the primary olfactory cortex (primary in the sense that it is first), while the piriform cortex should be regarded as association cortex — meaning that it integrates sensory information with ‘higher-order’ (cognitive, contextual, and behavioral) information.

Testing this hypothesis, a new rat study has found that, when rats were given training to distinguish various odors, each smell produced a different pattern of electrical activity in the olfactory bulb. However, only those smells that the rat could distinguish from others were reflected in distinct patterns of brain activity in the anterior piriform cortex, while smells that the rat couldn’t differentiate produced identical brain activity patterns there. Interestingly, the smells that the rats could easily distinguish were ones in which one of the ten components in the target odor had been replaced with a new component. The smells they found difficult to distinguish were those in which a component had simply been deleted.

When a new group of rats was given additional training (8 days vs the 2 days given the original group), they eventually learned to discriminate between the odors the first animals couldn’t distinguish, and this was reflected in distinct patterns of brain activity in the anterior piriform cortex. When a third group were taught to ignore the difference between odors the first rats could readily distinguish, they became unable to tell the odors apart, and similar patterns of brain activity were produced in the piriform cortex.

The effects of training were also quite stable — they were still evident after two weeks.

These findings support the idea of the piriform cortex as association cortex. It is here that experience modified neuronal activity. In the olfactory bulb, where all the various odors were reflected in different patterns of activity right from the beginning (meaning that this part of the brain could discriminate between odors that the rat itself couldn’t distinguish), training made no difference to the patterns of activity.

Having said that, it should be noted that this is not entirely consistent with previous research. Several studies have found that odor training produces changes in the representations in the olfactory bulb. The difference may lie in the method of neural recording.

How far does this generalize to the human brain? Human studies have suggested that odors are represented in the posterior piriform cortex rather than the anterior piriform cortex. They have also suggested that the anterior piriform cortex is involved in expectations relating to the smells, rather than representing the smells themselves. Whether these differences reflect species differences, task differences, or methodological differences, remains to be seen.

But whether or not the same exact regions are involved, there are practical implications we can consider. The findings do suggest that one road to olfactory impairment is through neglect — if you learn to ignore differences between smells, you will become increasingly less able to do so. An impaired sense of smell has been found in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, and even normal aging. While some of that may well reflect impairment earlier in the perception process, some of it may reflect the consequences of neglect. The burning question is, then, would it be possible to restore smell function through odor training?

I’d really like to see this study replicated with old rats.

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Dealing with math anxiety

November, 2011

A new study shows that some math-anxious students can overcome performance deficits through their ability to control their negative responses. The finding indicates that interventions should focus on anticipatory cognitive control.

Math-anxiety can greatly lower performance on math problems, but just because you suffer from math-anxiety doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to perform badly. A study involving 28 college students has found that some of the students anxious about math performed better than other math-anxious students, and such performance differences were associated with differences in brain activity.

Math-anxious students who performed well showed increased activity in fronto-parietal regions of the brain prior to doing math problems — that is, in preparation for it. Those students who activated these regions got an average 83% of the problems correct, compared to 88% for students with low math anxiety, and 68% for math-anxious students who didn’t activate these regions. (Students with low anxiety didn’t activate them either.)

The fronto-parietal regions activated included the inferior frontal junction, inferior parietal lobule, and left anterior inferior frontal gyrus — regions involved in cognitive control and reappraisal of negative emotional responses (e.g. task-shifting and inhibiting inappropriate responses). Such anticipatory activity in the fronto-parietal region correlated with activity in the dorsomedial caudate, nucleus accumbens, and left hippocampus during math activity. These sub-cortical regions (regions deep within the brain, beneath the cortex) are important for coordinating task demands and motivational factors during the execution of a task. In particular, the dorsomedial caudate and hippocampus are highly interconnected and thought to form a circuit important for flexible, on-line processing. In contrast, performance was not affected by activity in ‘emotional’ regions, such as the amygdala, insula, and hypothalamus.

In other words, what’s important is not your level of anxiety, but your ability to prepare yourself for it, and control your responses. What this suggests is that the best way of dealing with math anxiety is to learn how to control negative emotional responses to math, rather than trying to get rid of them.

Given that cognitive control and emotional regulation are slow to mature, it also suggests that these effects are greater among younger students.

The findings are consistent with a theory that anxiety hinders cognitive performance by limiting the ability to shift attention and inhibit irrelevant/distracting information.

Note that students in the two groups (high and low anxiety) did not differ in working memory capacity or in general levels of anxiety.

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Long-term meditation fights age-related cognitive decline

August, 2011

Another study adds to the weight of evidence that meditating has cognitive benefits. The latest finding points to brain-wide improvements in connectivity.

Following on from research showing that long-term meditation is associated with gray matter increases across the brain, an imaging study involving 27 long-term meditators (average age 52) and 27 controls (matched by age and sex) has revealed pronounced differences in white-matter connectivity between their brains.

The differences reflect white-matter tracts in the meditators’ brains being more numerous, more dense, more myelinated, or more coherent in orientation (unfortunately the technology does not yet allow us to disentangle these) — thus, better able to quickly relay electrical signals.

While the differences were evident among major pathways throughout the brain, the greatest differences were seen within the temporal part of the superior longitudinal fasciculus (bundles of neurons connecting the front and the back of the cerebrum) in the left hemisphere; the corticospinal tract (a collection of axons that travel between the cerebral cortex of the brain and the spinal cord), and the uncinate fasciculus (connecting parts of the limbic system, such as the hippocampus and amygdala, with the frontal cortex) in both hemispheres.

These findings are consistent with the regions in which gray matter increases have been found. For example, the tSLF connects with the caudal area of the temporal lobe, the inferior temporal gyrus, and the superior temporal gyrus; the UNC connects the orbitofrontal cortex with the amygdala and hippocampal gyrus

It’s possible, of course, that those who are drawn to meditation, or who are likely to engage in it long term, have fundamentally different brains from other people. However, it is more likely (and more consistent with research showing the short-term effects of meditation) that the practice of meditation changes the brain.

The precise mechanism whereby meditation might have these effects can only be speculated. However, more broadly, we can say that meditation might induce physical changes in the brain, or it might be protecting against age-related reduction. Most likely of all, perhaps, both processes might be going on, perhaps in different regions or networks.

Regardless of the mechanism, the evidence that meditation has cognitive benefits is steadily accumulating.

The number of years the meditators had practiced ranged from 5 to 46. They reported a number of different meditation styles, including Shamatha, Vipassana and Zazen.

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New insight into insight, and the role of the amygdala in memory

April, 2011

A new study suggests that one-off learning (that needs no repetition) occurs because the amygdala, center of emotion in the brain, judges the information valuable.

Most memory research has concerned itself with learning over time, but many memories, of course, become fixed in our mind after only one experience. The mechanism by which we acquire knowledge from single events is not well understood, but a new study sheds some light on it.

The study involved participants being presented with images degraded almost beyond recognition. After a few moments, the original image was revealed, generating an “aha!” type moment. Insight is an experience that is frequently remembered well after a single occurrence. Participants repeated the exercise with dozens of different images.

Memory for these images was tested a week later, when participants were again shown the degraded images, and asked to recall details of the actual image.

Around half the images were remembered. But what’s intriguing is that the initial learning experience took place in a brain scanner, and to the researchers’ surprise, one of the highly active areas during the moment of insight was the amygdala. Moreover, high activity in the amygdala predicted that those images would be remembered a week later.

It seems the more we learn about the amygdala, the further its involvement extends. In this case, it’s suggested that the amygdala signals to other parts of the brain that an event is significant. In other words, it gives a value judgment, decreeing whether an event is worthy of being remembered. Presumably the greater the value, the more effort the brain puts into consolidating the information.

It is not thought, from the images used, that those associated with high activity in the amygdala were more ‘emotional’ than the other images.

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Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in 8 weeks

February, 2011

After 8 weeks practicing mindfulness meditation, measurable changes occurred in brain regions associated with memory and emotion.

Brain images of 16 participants in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program, taken two weeks before and after the program, have found measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. Specifically, they showed increased grey-matter density in the left hippocampus, posterior cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction, and cerebellum, as well as decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala. Similar brain scans of a control group of non-meditators (those on a waiting list for the program) showed no such changes over time.

Although a number of studies have found differences in the brains of experienced meditators and those who don’t practice meditation, this is the first to demonstrate that those differences are actually produced by meditation.

The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program involved weekly meetings that included practice of mindfulness meditation and audio recordings for guided meditation practice. Participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises.

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Children with autism have distinctive patterns of brain activity

December, 2010

An imaging study has found three different brain signatures discriminating children with autistic spectrum disorders, siblings of children with ASD, and other typically-developing children.

Last month I reported on a finding that toddlers with autism spectrum disorder showed a strong preference for looking at moving shapes rather than active people. This lower interest in people is supported by a new imaging study involving 62 children aged 4-17, of whom 25 were diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder and 20 were siblings of children with ASD.

In the study, participants were shown point-light displays (videos created by placing lights on the major joints of a person and filming them moving in the dark). Those with ASD showed reduced activity in specific regions (right amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, right posterior superior temporal sulcus, left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, and the fusiform gyri) when they were watching a point-light display of biological motion compared with a display of moving dots. These same regions have also been implicated in previous research with adults with ASD.

Moreover, the severity of social deficits correlated with degrees of activity in the right pSTS specifically. More surprisingly, other brain regions (left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, right inferior temporal gyrus, and a different part of the fusiform gyri) showed reduced activity in both the siblings group and the ASD group compared to controls. The sibling group also showed signs of compensatory activity, with some regions (right posterior temporal sulcus and a different part of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex) working harder than normal.

The implications of this will be somewhat controversial, and more research will be needed to verify these findings.

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[1987] Kaiser, M. D., Hudac C. M., Shultz S., Lee S. M., Cheung C., Berken A. M., et al.
(2010).  Neural signatures of autism.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Full text available at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/11/05/1010412107.full.pdf+html

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