Could mental math boost emotional health?

October 10, 2016

DURHAM, N.C. -- Engaging a specific part of the brain during mental math exercises is connected with better emotional health, according to a new brain-scanning study published by Duke researchers in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

The research takes a preliminary step toward informing new brain training strategies to stave off depression and anxiety. Although the relationship between math and emotion needs further study, the new findings may also lead to new tests gauging the effectiveness of psychological therapies.

"Our work provides the first direct evidence that the ability to regulate emotions like fear and anger reflects the brain's ability to make numerical calculations in real time," said Matthew Scult, a neuroscience graduate student in the lab of the study's senior investigator Ahmad Hariri, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

Although they may seem unrelated, doing "cold" calculations and regulating "hot" emotions both rely on similar mental gymnastics: the ability to manipulate and update information. Researchers have long speculated about the link between the two.

In the new study, Hariri's group analyzed brain activity of 186 undergraduates -- using a type of non-invasive brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging -- while they were doing math problems from memory.

The students are participants in the ongoing Duke Neurogenetics Study, which is exploring relationships between genes, the brain and mental health. In addition to the scans, participants completed questionnaires and interviews assessing their mental health status and emotional coping strategies.

Memory-based math problems stimulate a region of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which has already been linked to depression and anxiety. Studies have found, for example, that higher activity in this area is associated with fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. A well-established psychological treatment called cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches individuals how to re-think negative situations, has also been seen to boost activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

In the current study, the more active a person's dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was while performing mental math, the more likely he or she was to report being able to adapt their thoughts about emotionally difficult situations.

"We don't know for sure why that is, but it fit into our hypothesis that the ability to do these more complex math problems might allow you to more readily learn how to think about complex emotional situations in different ways," Scult said. "It is easy to get stuck in one way of thinking."

Greater activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex also was associated with fewer depression and anxiety symptoms. The difference was especially obvious in people who had been through recent life stressors, such as failing a class. Participants with higher dorsolateral prefrontal activity were also less likely to have a mental illness diagnosis.

It is still unclear whether more actively engaging the brain area with math exercises would lead to better emotional coping strategies or the other way around. The researchers plan to collect the same type of data over a longer time period, to see whether one observation precedes the other.

"We hope, with these and future studies, that we can inform new strategies to help people regulate their emotions, and to prevent symptoms of anxiety and depression from developing in the first place," Scult said.
-end-
Hariri is a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the National Institutes of Health (P30DA023026, R01AG049789, R01DA033369, R01AG049789).

CITATION: "Thinking and Feeling: Individual Differences in Habitual Emotion Regulation and Stress-Related Mood are Associated with Prefrontal Executive Control," Matthew A. Scult, Annchen R. Knodt, Johnna R. Swartz, Bartholomew D. Brigidi and Ahmad R. Hariri. Clinical Psychological Science, Online Oct. 6, 2016. DOI: 10.1177/2167702616654688

Online: http://cpx.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/10/06/2167702616654688.abstract

Duke University

Related Depression Articles from Brightsurf:

Children with social anxiety, maternal history of depression more likely to develop depression
Although researchers have known for decades that depression runs in families, new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York, suggests that children suffering from social anxiety may be at particular risk for depression in the future.

Depression and use of marijuana among US adults
This study examined the association of depression with cannabis use among US adults and the trends for this association from 2005 to 2016.

Maternal depression increases odds of depression in offspring, study shows
Depression in mothers during and after pregnancy increased the odds of depression in offspring during adolescence and adulthood by 70%.

Targeting depression: Researchers ID symptom-specific targets for treatment of depression
For the first time, physician-scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center have identified two clusters of depressive symptoms that responded to two distinct neuroanatomical treatment targets in patients who underwent transcranial magnetic brain stimulation (TMS) for treatment of depression.

A biological mechanism for depression
Researchers report that in depressed individuals there are increased amounts of an unmodified structural protein, called tubulin, in lipid rafts compared with non-depressed individuals.

Depression in adults who are overweight or obese
In an analysis of primary care records of 519,513 UK adults who were overweight or obese between 2000-2016 and followed up until 2019, the incidence of new cases of depression was 92 per 10,000 people per year.

Why stress doesn't always cause depression
Rats susceptible to anhedonia, a core symptom of depression, possess more serotonin neurons after being exposed to chronic stress, but the effect can be reversed through amygdala activation, according to new research in JNeurosci.

Which comes first: Smartphone dependency or depression?
New research suggests a person's reliance on his or her smartphone predicts greater loneliness and depressive symptoms, as opposed to the other way around.

Depression breakthrough
Major depressive disorder -- referred to colloquially as the 'black dog' -- has been identified as a genetic cause for 20 distinct diseases, providing vital information to help detect and manage high rates of physical illnesses in people diagnosed with depression.

CPAP provides relief from depression
Researchers have found that continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can improve depression symptoms in patients suffering from cardiovascular diseases.

Read More: Depression News and Depression Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.