Researcher at the University of Alberta and scientists from Duke University have identified brain patterns that help healthy older people regulate and control emotion better than their younger counterparts.
Dr. Florin Dolcos, assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, a member of the Alberta Cognitive Neuroscience Group, and his colleagues identified two regions in the brain that showed increased activity when participants over the age of 60 were shown standardized pictures of emotionally challenging situations.
"Previous studies have provided evidence that healthy older individuals have a positivity bias - they can actually manage how much attention they give to negative situations so they're less upset by them," Dr. Dolcos said.
"We didn't understand how the brain worked to give seniors this sense of perspective until now," he added.
During the study, researchers asked younger and older participants to rate the emotional content of standardized images as positive, neutral or negative, while their brain activity was monitored with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, a high-tech device that uses a large magnet to take pictures inside the brain.
The older participants rated the images as less negative than the younger participants.
The fMRI scans helped the research team observe this reaction in the senior participants.
After analysing the scans, researchers found increased interactions between the amygdala, a brain region involved in emotion detection, and the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region involved in emotion control.
"These findings indicate that emotional control improves with aging, and that it's the increased interaction between these two brain regions that allows healthy seniors to control their emotional response so that they are less affected by upsetting situations," Dr. Dolcos said.
Dolcos said that this research might have clinical implications.
"If we can better understand how the brain works to create a positivity bias in older people, then we can apply this knowledge to better understand and treat mental health issues with a negativity bias, such as depression and anxiety disorders, in which patients have difficulty coping with emotionally challenging situations," he said.
The study is published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.