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Are Emotions Measurable in Brain Scans?

November 02, 2016
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What happens when your mind wanders? A new study from Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience says your brain lights up with a variety of emotions. Researchers asked participants to relax and think about nothing before placing them in a scanner, a process similar to an MRI. Biomarkers were used on brain scans to identify a range of emotions including amusement, anger, content, fear, neutral, sadness and surprise. “We just had no way of tracking that phenomenon,” said Kevin LaBar, co-author of the study, “Part of our interest was that a lot of our emotional life happens when our mind is not focused on a task and is just idling, yet we don’t have a good traction on what are those emotions and how long they last.” The first emotion identified in a majority of participants was fear, which may have been caused by entering the scanner. However, only a few reported claustrophobia. The fear biomarker stayed for an average of 20 to 30 seconds. “Neutral” occurred at the highest frequency among participants, with surprise and amusement in second and third. Contentment was found and identified the least. More nuanced traits like jealousy were not tested in the study, as it is harder to induce on participants naturally. Researchers also discovered that patients who suffered from anxiety, depression and anger problems had matching biomarkers under the scanner. For example, participants with depression had higher frequencies of sad biomarkers. If brain scans match diagnoses, researchers may be able to identify patients with depression or anxiety early on. LaBar conducted this study to counteract how emotional assessments in clinical settings rely primarily on a patient self-reporting. “We tend to just ask people how they feel and take that at face value,” LaBar said, “I think that both for treatment of clinical disorders as well as basic research, we wanted to try to see whether we come up with more objective ways of measuring emotions. In other cases, like in autism, the social communication problems prevent us from really understanding what their emotional life is like.” In some cases, doctors cannot get a full understanding of a patient’s mental state, especially if they are socialized to not express feelings. This is prevalent in male war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Using brain scans before, during and after treatment may fill the gaps patients cannot vocalize. “If we compare the brain scans before and after treatment, we can determine whether their resting-state emotions change at the function of that treatment,” LaBar added, “Somebody who is being treated for depression might feel better or say that they feel better, but if we see that the presence of sadness in their resting state scans is the same or doesn’t really change that much, it may suggest that the person may be more vulnerable to relapse following the treatment.” For further studies, LaBar would like to use brain scans on comatose patients. Are individuals experiencing emotions in a vegetative state? This study could also be used to analyze children’s brains as they age, and potentially explain why schizophrenics feel emotionally separated from their experiences. “With more sophisticated brain-imaging techniques and computing techniques, we can pool some commonalities across the emotional life of people even if they have very different experiences in their life and very different propensity to self-report their emotions.”
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