Skip To Content
Cambridge University Science Magazine
Neuroscientists have conventionally investigated human emotions by correlating them with concomitant neural activity. Recently, Dr. Andrea Caria and her team at the Eberhard-Karls-University of Tubingen have revolutionised the approach to cognitive research by having subjects learn to control local brain activity, and using it as the independent variable. This is made possible through real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging, a non-invasive technique that provides feedback on blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) responses.

Earlier studies have implicated the insula, a region of the brain, in the regulation of sentiments. After being trained, subjects modulated the BOLD response in their left anterior insula; the resulting impact on the perception of visual stimuli (neutral or aversive images) was then examined. The subjects were divided into three groups: one received specific feedback on the insular BOLD responses, another was given unspecific feedback, while the last received none.

Only the subjects who received the specific feedback were able to efficiently manipulate the activity of their insula. As hypothesised, increased activity in the insula lead to more intensive reactions to the stimuli. Similarly, milder responses to the presented images were associated with diminished activity of the insula.

These results suggest that people can consciously exert control over their own brain systems, which in turn play a role in emotional and perceptive processes that were thought to be out of reach in the context of treating emotional disorders. This can be applied to cognitive and behavioural therapies. After more research is conducted, these findings may give rise to novel treatments.

Written by Ayesha Sengupta