In the brain, theta waves are central to the regulation of emotions

In the brain, theta waves are central to the regulation of emotions

We use it several times a day without necessarily being aware of it: emotional regulation is the process by which we manage to attenuate disturbing stimuli in order, for example, to stay focused, improve our well-being or even better respond to the requirements of its environment.

Emotion regulation plays a key role in many mental illnesses as well as their treatment, whether it is anxiety disorder, mood disorder or borderline personality disorder.

And this regulation is associated with the action of theta waves in a specific region of the brain, the frontal cortex.

This was observed by Inès Zouaoui, who is finishing her master’s degree in psychology at the Université de Montréal, as part of her research carried out under the direction of Professor Marc Lavoie, from the Research Center of the Institut universitaire en santé mind of Montreal.

A brain rhythm specific to emotional regulation

Ines Zouaoui

Credit: Courtesy Photo

Based on the results of a study* published in 2013 which revealed the presence of theta waves in emotional regulation, the Montreal research team submitted 24 people to a cognitive reassessment test.

“Cognitive reassessment, which consists of reinterpreting the context, is a voluntary strategy for understanding emotional regulation in an experimental context,” explains the researcher. Our goal was to decipher the electrocortical mechanisms that accompany these complex processes.”

To do this, electrodes were placed on the heads of these 10 men and 14 women in order to record the electrical activity of their brains at the sight of various aversive images such as a man armed with a knife or a threatening dog.

As the electroencephalograph continuously quantified and recorded frequencies of brain activity, subjects were instructed to increase, decrease, or maintain their aversion state, as appropriate. This process also refers to cognitive reassessment. After a few seconds, the image disappeared and the phase of emotional regulation faded.

“Analyses of the electroencephalogram, more advanced than in the previous study, thus compared certain frequencies noted during the cognitive reassessment, which enabled us to observe that only theta waves – which oscillate between 4 and 8 hertz – were triggered in the process, which makes it a marker of emotional regulation”, underlines the one who will undertake a doctorate in biomedical sciences, option Psychiatric Sciences, at the University of Montreal in the fall.

“What is new with our study is that, by comparing the emotional induction phase with the emotional regulation phase, it could be shown that the theta wave is specific to regulation, she continues. Analyzes of the alpha wave, which ranges from 8 to 13 hertz, were added to assess the specificity of the theta wave as a function of emotional regulation and we observed that the alpha wave is not sensitive to either induction or emotional regulation.

In addition, the addition of electrodes made it possible to locate the areas that produce these theta waves in connection with emotional regulation, ie the frontal regions involved in cognitive control.

Towards new therapeutic interventions

The electroencephalogram also made it possible to locate the areas that produce theta waves in connection with emotional regulation, i.e. the frontal regions involved in cognitive control.

Credit: Courtesy Photo

In addition to the desire to repeat a previous study to broaden the scope of the scientific review in this area, Inès Zouaoui hopes that her experience may eventually be used in clinical practice.

“The relevance of theta oscillations as a marker of successful regulation could lead to new therapeutic options for treating people whose emotional regulation process is impaired,” she concludes. This is particularly the case for those suffering from severe anxiety or schizophrenia.

* M. Ertl et al., “Emotion regulation by cognitive reappraisal: The role of frontal theta oscillations”, NeuroImage, vol. 81, 2013, p. 412-421.

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