Unpleasant images can be less so with brief computer training

Researchers from Ben-Gurion University and the University of Haifa found that simple computer training can alter the brain's sensitivity to certain images.

January 3, 2016 00:49
3 minute read.
Human brain

An image of the human brain. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Training with a computer for only six days can reduce brain activity elicited by unpleasant images and strengthen brain circuits responsible for regulating emotions, according to a new study at Ben-Gurion University and the University of Haifa published in the journal NeuroImage.

Someone who has felt “too sensitive” and wanted to change his brain and be less affected by negative events may find help. The research offers the possibility of calming the emotional part of the brain, according to Dr. Noga Cohen of BGU, who earned her doctorate partially on the basis of her thesis on the topic. She was guided by Prof. Avishai Henik of the cognitive neuropsychology lab together with Dr. Hadas Okon Singer of the University of Haifa and the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.

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The researchers found that simple computer training sessions that involve ignoring irrelevant information can alter the brain’s wiring and cause it to react less to unpleasant images. These changes are accompanied by strengthening neural connections in the brain that are involved in controlling emotional responses. This is the first demonstration that non-emotional training can change the emotional reactions of the brain.

A total of 26 healthy volunteers underwent brain scans during the study, before and after training on the computer. It included a simple task that participants repeated it three times a day, each time for about 15 minutes, over six days.

During the training, participants were asked to identify whether a central arrow was pointing to the left or the right, ignoring the direction of the arrows adjacent to it on both sides.

The central arrow could point in the same direction of the adjacent or in the opposite direction. Half of the participants underwent intensive training in which 80 percent of the arrows were incorrectly positioned – that is, distracting arrows were aimed in the opposite direction of the central arrow. The other participants served as a control group in which only 20 percent of the arrows pointed in opposite directions.

Before and after the training, participants underwent brain scans using functional MRI testing while in a resting state; connections between different brain regions were examined without the patient performing any task. In addition, they were asked to perform a simple task while ignoring unpleasant pictures.

As expected, in participants who completed the more intensive version of the training (but not in other participants), at the end of the session there was reduced activity in the amygdala – a brain region responsible for negative emotions, such as sadness and anxiety. The intensive training was found to have helped establish additional connections between the amygdala and the frontal cortex region involved in regulating emotions.

These findings, said the researchers, are the first to show that non-emotional training improves the ability to ignore irrelevant information and can lead to reduced brain responses to emotional events and change the connections in the brain.

While the study has limitations, because it involved a relatively small number of healthy participants and focused on short-term effects of the training, the researchers suggested that the training could be effective for people suffering from problems in regulating their emotions. In fact, previous research they did showed that similar training can reduce the tendency to brood repeatedly over negative life events.

In the next stage of the study, the researchers will want to determine if the training is effective for people suffering from emotional regulation problems. Indeed, previous research has already shown that the training can reduce the tendency to brood repeated negative life event.

Therefore, as the next step, the researchers want to examine the impact of the non-emotional training on people with heightened emotional reactions who suffer from depression and anxiety or people at high risk of developing high blood pressure from their sensitivity to negative information. Such future research could great relevance to important medical problems for a major chunk of the population.

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