Study Shows What Drives Emotional Wellness in the Brain

These findings could help scientists understand the underlying neurobiology of human emotions.
Christopher McFadden

A recent study has discovered the specific compounds and parts of the brain that signal "emotional wellness" in healthy people. These findings could prove instrumental in helping scientists understand the underlying neurobiology of human emotions.


The science of wellness

Researchers at Brown University's Carney Institute for Brain Science have been looking into the inner workings of the brain to reveal the secrets that govern human emotions. By using proton magnetic spectroscopy (1H-MRS), a non-invasive brain imaging technique, they were looking at how specific biochemical compounds relate to daily emotions in healthy individuals. 

Researchers limited their study to two main mental faculties, one of them being "agency", which is the ability to shape your world, and the other one being "flexibility", which covers the ability to fluidly respond to events as they unfold.

This study is also the first to find that a compound in the brain called N-acetylaspartate (NAA), which appears to play a key role in both agency and flexibility in healthy. 

Their findings were published on the 27th of October in the neuroscience journal NeuroImage

“Agency and flexibility are important aspects of everyday life,” said Tara White, assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences (research) at Brown, and her team at Brown, the University of Florida, and the University of Calgary, who is affiliated with the Carney Institute and the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies in Brown’s School of Public Health.

“Our data provide insight [into] the brain mechanisms that support agency, immersive emotion, and resilience to aggression in healthy people,” she added.

The compound NAA was found in high concentrations within certain neurons and is widely considered to be a marker of health neurons. The research also found that NAA strongly correlates to three traits in healthy individuals: emotional fluidity, positive agency, and non-aggression.

According to their findings, higher levels of the compound were found in those individuals who were more responsive and richer in emotions than those with relatively lower levels of NAA. Individuals with higher NAA also showed higher levels of directedness, more positive emotional control, and were less aggressive. 

This correlation has been dubbed by the team as "Neuroaffective Reserves". 

“These findings tell us how immersive emotion, positive agency and resilience to aggression work in the human brain,” White explained.

“These findings [also] indicate NAA and other brain compounds play a fundamental role in emotional wellness and positive emotional outcomes in healthy individuals,” she added.

White also explained that behavioral flexibility and engagement were moderately related to glutamatergic compounds involved in excitatory neurotransmission, learning, memory, and goal-directed behavior.

Our emotional health does appear to be driven by biochemistry, in part at least

The team made some other interesting discoveries too. For example, affiliative bonding appears to be related to Choline -- a precursor of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This has been shown to be an important compound involved in human emotional learning.

This provides positive feedback that helps to inform the brain foundations of positive emotion, engagement, and interpersonal connection in healthy people.

“This imaging approach is interesting because these biochemical compounds could be used as an objective brain marker for traits related to wellness,” added Meghan Gonsalves, an author of the study and a Ph.D. student at Brown who holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University.

White and her team now hope to build on their findings by establishing a three-pronged research program on brain metabolites that contribute to emotions in healthy adults.

Looking into the future, the team hopes that their findings will build a research program on the neurobiology of human emotion within their department and other research institutions. 

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