Complex Mental Activity May Protect Against Anxiety


Making an effort to engage the areas of the brain that are important for problem solving could be one way to diminish anxiety. In a new study from Duke University, researchers found when university students participated in complex mental activities, they were less likely to develop risk for anxiety.

“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,” said Ahmad Hariri, the study’s co-author and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, in a press release.

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The 120 participants were students who completed the Duke Neurogenetics Study who completed self-reporting questionnaires about their moods and anxiety, life events and childhood trauma. Questions were asked about general distress anxiety, anxious arousal and more.

The researchers assessed participants for common psychiatric disorders via interview, then began the complex mental activity. A type of non-invasive functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to assess the participants’ brain activity.

“We wanted to address an area of understanding mental illness that has been neglected, and that is the flip side of risk,” Hariri said. “We are looking for variables that actually confer resiliency and protect individuals from developing problems.”

Participants were asked to answer memory-based math problems, view images of angry or scared facial expressions and to play a guessing game with rewards. These activities stimulated various parts of the brain, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, known as the brain’s control center, as well as the amygdala, the part of the brain that affects emotions.

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“We found that if you have a higher functioning dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the imbalance in these deeper brain structures is not expressed as changes in mood or anxiety,” Hariri said.

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, located at the front of the brain, helps to maintain focus as well as adjust to change. Matthew Scult, of the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke and study co-author, said he was interested in individuals who were considered to be ‘at-risk,’ with a combination of a high threat-related activity in the amygdala and low reward-related activity in the ventral striatum, an area in the middle of the brain.

“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 said.