Durham County

Working puzzles can keep the brain sharp. Wait, what was that I just said?

A recent study by Duke University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience suggests a possible connection between good cognitive health and reducing anxiety.
A recent study by Duke University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience suggests a possible connection between good cognitive health and reducing anxiety. TNS

Working puzzles not only helps to keep the brain sharp. A new study from Duke University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience suggests that keeping the mind sharp might also help with anxiety and depression.

Using non-invasive brain imaging, Ahmad Hariri, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, and Matthew Scult, a clinical psychology Ph.D. graduate student in the department, found that people at risk for anxiety were less likely to develop the disorder if they had higher activity in a region of the brain responsible for complex mental operations, a Duke press release stated. The results may be a step towards tailoring psychological therapies to the specific brain functioning of individual patients.

“We’ve known for some time that working crosswords is good for the brain,” but this research also suggests a connection to emotional health, said Scult, who is the first author of the study, published Nov. 17 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

“These findings help reinforce a strategy whereby individuals may be able to improve their emotional functioning — their mood, their anxiety, their experience of depression — not only by directly addressing those phenomena, but also by indirectly improving their general cognitive functioning,” stated Hariri in a press release.

Previous findings from Hariri’s group show that people whose brains exhibit a high response to threat and a low response to reward are more at risk of developing symptoms of anxiety and depression over time.

In the new study, Hariri and Scult wanted to investigate whether higher activity in a region of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex could help shield these at-risk individuals from future mental illness.

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the brain’s “executive control” center, helping to focus attention and plan complex actions. It also plays a role in emotion regulation, and well-established types of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, engage this region of the brain by equipping patients with strategies to reframe or re-evaluate their emotions.

The team drew on data from 120 undergraduate students who participated in the Duke Neurogenetics Study. Each participant completed a series of mental health questionnaires and underwent a type of non-invasive brain scan called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging while engaged in tasks meant to activate specific regions of the brain.

The researchers asked each participant to answer simple memory-based math problems to stimulate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Participants also viewed angry or scared faces to activate a region of the brain called the amygdala, and played a reward-based guessing game to stimulate activity in the brain’s ventral striatum.

Scult was particularly interested individuals with the combination of high threat-related activity in the amygdala and low reward-related activity in the ventral striatum. By comparing participants’ mental health assessments at the time of the brain scans, and in a follow-up occurring on average seven months later, he found that these at-risk individuals were less likely to develop anxiety if they also had high activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Having a better understanding of the connection between cognitive and emotional centers might have implications for treatment. “What are the connections between these more emotional processes, and these cognitive processes?” Scult said. “We might be able to enhance our emotional well-being through therapy but also cognitive training,” he said.

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is especially skilled at adapting to new situations, the researchers said. Individuals whose brains exhibit the at-risk signatures may be more likely to benefit from strategies that boost the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal activity, including cognitive behavioral therapy, working memory training, or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS is a noninvasive procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to improve symptoms of depression, according to the Mayo Clinic. The procedure is typically used when other depression treatments have not been effective.

But, the researchers warn, the jury is still out on whether many brain-training exercises improve the overall functioning of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or only hone its ability to complete the specific task being trained. Additional studies on more diverse populations are also needed to confirm their findings.

Scult would like to repeat the study using participants of a more diverse range of ages. Keeping the brain active “might be even more important as people age,” he said. “We don’t know that yet,” but Scult would like to do more research in that area.

“We are hoping to help improve current mental health treatments by first predicting who is most at-risk so that we can intervene earlier, and second, by using these types of approaches to determine who might benefit from a given therapy,” Scult stated in the release.

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1