Regulation of emotional responses elicited by threat-related stimuli.
Eippert F., Veit R., Weiskopf N., Erb M., Birbaumer N., Anders S.
The capacity to voluntarily regulate emotions is critical for mental health, especially when coping with aversive events. Several neuroimaging studies of emotion regulation found the amygdala to be a target for downregulation and prefrontal regions to be associated with downregulation. To characterize the role of prefrontal regions in bidirectional emotion regulation and to investigate regulatory influences on amygdala activity and peripheral physiological measures, a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study with simultaneous recording of self-report, startle eyeblink, and skin conductance responses was carried out. Subjects viewed threat-related pictures and were asked to up- and downregulate their emotional responses using reappraisal strategies. While startle eyeblink responses (in successful regulators) and skin conductance responses were amplified during upregulation, but showed no consistent effect during downregulation, amygdala activity was increased and decreased according to the regulation instructions. Trial-by-trial ratings of regulation success correlated positively with activity in amygdala during upregulation and orbitofrontal cortex during downregulation. Downregulation was characterized by left-hemispheric activation peaks in anterior cingulate cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex and upregulation was characterized by a pattern of prefrontal activation not restricted to the left hemisphere. Further analyses showed significant overlap of prefrontal activation across both regulation conditions, possibly reflecting cognitive processes underlying both up- and downregulation, but also showed distinct activations in each condition. The present study demonstrates that amygdala responses to threat-related stimuli can be controlled through the use of cognitive strategies depending on recruitment of prefrontal areas, thereby changing the subject's affective state.