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Seat of Emotions in Brain May Also Contribute to Higher Cognition


New Haven, Conn. — The amygdala is a central processing station in the brain for emotions, but Yale researchers report that the amygdala also plays a role in working memory, a higher cognitive function critical for reasoning and problem solving.

In two different functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies with a total of 74 participants, individual differences in amygdala activity predicted behavioral performance on a working memory task, according to the report in the Journal of Neuroscience.

“People with stronger amygdala responses during the working memory task also had faster response times,” said Jeremy Gray, senior author of the study and assistant professor of psychology. “This effect held even when people were responding to neutral words, which can hardly be called emotional.”

The subjects were asked to look either at words, such as rooster, elbow, and steel, or faces of attractive men and women. They then were asked to indicate whether or not the current word or image matched the one they saw three frames earlier, which most people find quite challenging. Their brains were scanned while completing the tasks.

“Our findings are surprising because they show that a brain structure widely thought to be involved primarily, or perhaps even exclusively, in emotion processing is also involved in higher cognition, even when there is no emotional content,” Gray said. “In fact, because it seemed so counterintuitive, we thought it was really important to replicate the result, which we did.”

He and his team hypothesize that the amygdala may serve, among other purposes, a general vigilance function aimed at preparing people to better cope with challenging situations and also the ability to sort information according to its relevance to the task at hand.

“Because these findings are surprising,” said the lead author, Alexandre Schaefer, a former post-doctoral fellow in Gray’s lab and now a lecturer at Leeds University, UK, “they may help further our understanding of how emotion and cognition interact in the human brain.”

The Journal of Neuroscience 26 (40): 10120-10128 (October 4, 2006)


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