Theta waves: A marker for emotional regulation


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Summary: Emotion regulation was linked to theta wave activity in the brain’s frontal cortex.

Source: University of Montreal

Without realizing it, we rely on emotional regulation many times a day. It’s the process by which we soften the effects of distracting stimuli in order to stay focused, improve our well-being, and respond to the demands of our environment.

Emotion regulation plays a key role in many mental illnesses and their treatment, including anxiety, mood disorders, and borderline personality disorder.

Now, Inès Zouaoui, a psychology masters student supervised by Professor Marc Lavoie at the Montreal Mental Health University Institute Research Center, has shown that emotional regulation is linked to the action of theta waves in a specific part of the brain called the frontal cortex. Zouaoui will complete her Ph.D. in biomedicine, option psychiatry, at the UdeM this fall.

A brain wave specific to emotional regulation

Building on the results of a 2013 study that showed theta waves are generated during emotion regulation, the Montreal research team put 24 subjects through a cognitive reassessment exercise.

“We used cognitive reappraisal, which is basically reinterpreting the meaning of a situation, to conduct an experimental study of emotion regulation,” Zouaoui explained. “Our goal was to decipher the electrocortical mechanisms that accompany this complex process.”

They attached electrodes to the scalps of the 10 men and 14 women to record electrical activity in their brains in response to disturbing images, such as a man armed with a knife or a menacing dog.

While their brain activity was continuously measured and recorded using electroencephalography, subjects were instructed to either increase, decrease, or maintain their dislike, depending on which group they were assigned to. This step also involved a cognitive reassessment. After a few seconds, the image disappeared and the period of emotional regulation ended.

“We performed more detailed analysis of the encephalograms than in the previous study to measure the frequencies of the brain waves generated during cognitive reassessment and found only theta waves oscillating between 4 and 8 Hz,” Zouaoui reported.

“Thus, theta waves can be viewed as markers of emotional regulation.

“What’s new about our study is that by comparing the emotional induction and emotional regulation phases, we were able to show that theta waves are specific to the regulation phase,” Zouaoui said.

See also

This shows yellow balls with different facial expressions painted on
Using electrodes also allowed the research team to pinpoint the precise region of the brain responsible for generating theta waves: the frontal regions involved in cognitive control. The image is in the public domain

“We also looked for alpha waves, which range from 8 to 13 Hz, to see if theta waves are specific to emotional regulation, and found that alpha waves are neither for emotional induction nor for emotional regulation are sensitive.”

Using electrodes also allowed the research team to pinpoint the precise region of the brain responsible for generating theta waves: the frontal regions involved in cognitive control.

New treatment options

Zouaoui’s goal was not just to build on a previous study and to supplement the scientific literature; She hopes that one day her experiment can be used to support clinical practice.

“Because theta waves can be a marker for successful emotion regulation, this could lead to new treatment options for people whose emotional regulation process is disrupted, as is the case with severe anxiety and schizophrenia, for example.”

About this news from emotion regulation research

Author: Martin Lasalle
Source: University of Montreal
Contact: Martin Lasalle – University of Montreal
Picture: The image is in the public domain

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