Optimism Can Change Brain Volume, Providing Protection Against Emotional Distress

'People are not necessarily aware of how plastic the brain is.'

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In an effort to research how certain personality traits protect against emotional distress, such as depression and anxiety, researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois examined 85 healthy college students.

The study, “Neuro-Behavioral Mechanisms of Resilience against Emotional Distress: An Integrative Brain-Personality-Symptom Approach using Structural Equation Modeling,” was published in the August edition of Personality Neuroscience.

Study authors, Matthew Moore, Steven Culpepper, K. Luan Phan, Timothy J. Strauman, Florin Dolcos, and Sanda Dolcos, developed an integrative structural equation model to examine the associations among a latent construct of control, which represents the volumes of a system of middle, inferior, and orbital frontal cortices in the brain; a latent construct of resilience personality traits, such as optimism, positive affectivity, cognitive reappraisal; and emotional distress symptoms, like anxiety, depression.

Their findings show that the latent construct of a system of prefrontal cortical positively predicts the latent construct of resilience personality traits. This, in turn, negatively predicts anxiety. Therefore, greater latent control volume is indirectly associated with lower anxiety symptoms, due to greater resilience.

The results, researchers concluded, support the hypothesis that personality traits and brain volume help protect against symptoms of emotional distress. However, they also provide valuable information for understanding the interaction between these factors in individuals clinically diagnosed with anxiety or depression.

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“We are interested in cognitive behavioral intervention. We have identified a resilience factor, which relates to detailed components in the prefrontal cortex, so cognitive interventions would target those brain areas,” the researchers said in a press release supplied to Science Daily, concluding the following.

“People are not necessarily aware of how plastic the brain is. We can change the volume of the brain through experience and training. We can work on developing new skills, for instance, new emotion regulation strategies that have a more positive approach, and can actually impact the brain.”

According to University of Illinois researchers, the fact that brain volume can adapt with changes in personality — through training, and developing skills that alter personality traits, such as optimism — shows that brain training is a way to counter and beat emotional distress; symptoms of anxiety, and depression.

A similar study, published in September, 2015, offered, for the first time, evidence that optimism can play a mediating role in the relationship between the volume of the orbitofrontal cortex — the brain region located in the prefrontal cortex — and an individual’s level of anxiety, according to Psychology Today.

This part of the brain plays an important role in behavioral, as well as emotional regulation. A 2011 study, however, indicated that traumatic events can shrink parts of the orbitofrontal cortex, Psychology Today noted.