The Neural Processes that Lead to Effective Emotion Regulation: Effects of Aging

Elizabeth A. Kensinger, Ph.D.

Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA

Grant Program:

David Mahoney Neuroimaging Program

Funded in:

June 2007, for 3 years

Funding Amount:


Lay Summary

Understanding the Neural Basis for Older Adults’ Successful Regulation of Their Emotions

This research will use fMRI to examine how changes in the connections between areas of the brain involved in cognition and emotion lead to a more positive rather than negative emotional outlook, and how the direction and strength of those causal connections changes with age.

Emotion regulation involves the ability to control which emotions a person has, in what context, for how long, and at what intensity.  Research indicates that older adults focus on positive information in their environment, while young adults dwell on the negative.  The researchers hypothesize that the way that younger and older adults remember information is influenced by the way in which they initially process that information, and that this is highly dependent upon interactions between limbic (emotional) and prefrontal cortex (cognitive) brain areas. Using fMRI imaging to show fluctuations in blood flow as 40 young adults (18-28) and 40 older adults (65-80) attempt to increase positive and decrease negative emotional responses, the researchers will identify how the limbic and prefrontal cortex brain areas interact, and undertake connectivity analyses to understand the directionality of the interactions to see how the areas influence one another. They also will assess how individual differences in cognitive ability and advancing age influence the activity and strength of the causal link between these two brain regions.

Significance:  Understanding how neural networks may work together to support the regulation of emotion may eventually lead to improved therapies for anxiety or depression, and also may further understanding of the affective disorders that often accompany age-related degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.


The Neural Processes That Lead to Effective Emotion Regulation: Effects of Aging

Emotion regulation refers to a person’s ability to control which emotions they have, in what context and for how long they have them, and how intensely they experience them (Gross, 1998). A large body of research has demonstrated that older adults tend to prioritize emotion regulation more than young adults (Lawton et al., 1992; Labouvie-Vief & Medler, 2002). For example, older adults are more likely to choose pastimes that bring them emotional fulfillment and to recast prior negative experiences in a more positive light (Carstensen et al., 1999; Kennedy et al., 2004). The goals of the proposed research are to examine how neural interactions lead to successful emotion regulation in young adults and to identify what changes in neural connectivity correspond with older adults’ enhanced emotion-regulation ability.

To achieve these goals, the proposed research will take advantage of cutting-edge analysis techniques for functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data. In particular, the proposed research will use not only standard fMRI analyses to reveal the discrete regions that support people’s affective responses to stimuli but also connectivity analyses to understand how emotion regulation arises through the neural influence of one region (or network of regions) upon another.

By combining these analysis techniques, the proposed research will provide a first look at how interactions among neural regions lead to complex behaviors such as regulation of an emotional response, and how individual differences in those interactions may influence the efficacy of emotion regulation attempts. In particular, the proposed research will examine how connections between the lateral prefrontal cortex and limbic regions mediate young adults’ attempts to decrease negative affect or to increase positive affect (Aim 1). The proposed research also will assess how individual differences in cognitive ability (Aim 2) and advancing age (Aim 3) influence the activity in those regions, the strength of the causal links between those regions, and the efficacy of a person’s cognitive modulation of affective processing.

The proposed research represents an important new direction for the research in my laboratory. To date, our research has investigated the cognitive and neural processes that support young and older adults’ abilities to retain information over time. However, it is becoming more and more apparent that there is a close link between the way in which information is initially processed and the types of information that are most likely to be remembered about emotional experiences (reviewed by Kensinger, 2004; Mather, 2004). Therefore, the proposed research is likely to provide insight into how the information that young and older adults remember is influenced by the way in which they initially process that information.

Not only is this research important from a basic research perspective, it also is likely to have important clinical and public health applications. Failures in effective emotion regulation have dire implications for a person’s mental health and for their physical well-being (reviewed by Gross, 1998). Therefore, understanding the processes that lead to effective emotion regulation across the adult lifespan—and, in turn, what may go awry when emotion regulation fails—is likely to shed light on the neural changes at the root of affective disorders such as anxiety or depression. The results of the proposed research also may help to elucidate the reasons for the affective disturbances that often accompany age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease.

Investigator Biographies

Elizabeth A. Kensinger, Ph.D.

Elizabeth Kensinger is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Boston College.  She received her Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003 and conducted postdoctoral research at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University.  Her laboratory examines the links between emotional processing and emotional memory, with particular interest in how those links change as adults age.  Her research combines behavioral testing with functional neuroimaging approaches to uncover both the cognitive (thought-level) and neural (brain-level) processes that underlie emotion processing and emotional memory across the adult lifespan.