Fresh from the lab: Kathrin Cohen Kadosh about anxious teen-agers, emotional regulation and something wonderful called fMRI-based neurofeedback. What???? fMRI? Neurofeedback? Anxious teenagers? How is that relevant to parents of very small children? How on earth would that bring an end to a tantrum?
Yesterday, my mind was blown as Kathrin Cohen Kadosh presented her research and it dawned on me how fiercely relevant it is for us parents. Let us unpack it all, starting from what we know best: emotion.
When we regulate our emotions, we’re able to prevent them from spiraling up or down. We don’t let them govern our behaviour in a disadvantageous way. If you are expecting, you might have noticed that this has become more challenging lately. You may find yourself crying inconsolably because your favourite Christmas carol has filled your heart with nostalgia (that would be the emotion that governs you without your permission) or laughing hysterically (behaviour) because you suddenly find your friend's joke sooooo funny (emotion).
If you have a child, you probably know that she finds it even more difficult to prevent her emotions from taking control of her behaviour. We have patience for it when she is a baby, but by the time she’s hit 2 years, we certainly expect her to be in control and stop screaming (behaviour) just because we disappointed (emotion) her with the wrong-coloured cup.
It turns out that emotional regulation is not something we master any time before adulthood (and even then...!) In addition, difficulty with emotional regulation is generally a good predictor of anxiety (more here).
Supporting our children while they learn to regulate their emotions is not just a matter of controlling a tantrum. Emotional regulation has an impact on our children's mental health (and our own)!
Kathrin Cohen Kadosh and her team are doing an amazing job trying to find ways we can help children improve their emotional regulation ability. And that's when fMRI becomes relevant.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allows us to map and and measure what the brain is doing without opening up the skull. How is that possible?
The MRI scanner is a hugely powerful electromagnet (typically 3 Tesla - 50k times greater that the Earth's magnetic field). The strong magnetic field aligns the atoms in our brains (and all the rest of us), meaning we can measure their teeny-tiny magnetic signals.
If we want to measure brain activity, we can use a technique called blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) imaging. When neurons are more active, they require more oxygen, which is delivered by blood. This means that if there is more activity in a specific brain area, there will be more blood flowing to it. The magnetic properties of blood are different according to whether it is carrying oxygen or not, so we can detect how hard a specific area is "working" while our participant in the scanner is doing (or even just thinking of) something.
Based on previous studies, Kathrin and her team were particularly interested in neural activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and in the amygdala. They knew that a "mature" way of regulating emotion is reflected in less activity in the amygdala and more in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
It would be amazing if only we could help anxious children display that particular pattern of activity more often! It would mean helping them train to use their brains in a very healthy way that would hopefully protect them from anxiety. That is exactly what Kathrin and her team have set out to do. They are on a mission helped by a special high-tech weapon: fMRI-based neurofeedback!
Crazy as it sounds, it is possible to get participants to watch their own neural activities. This was first done with EEG signal, is now also possible with fMRI, which is called fMRI-based neurofeedback.
As one can imagine, this is pretty expensive business. Luckily, there are some amazing groups such as the BrainTrain consortium, whose goal it is to fund this kind of studies*.
Kathrin and her team showed participants a visual thermometer that would go up when they were showing the more "mature" pattern of activation (more activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, less activity in the amygdala) and down when the less mature pattern was present.
Example of sequence of visual thermometers.
Amazingly, just by watching those depiction of their neural activity (visual thermometers in Kathrin's case), participants can do..."something" to change them. They cannot explain exactly how they do it, but they can actually make the thermometer go up and down.
If an anxious teenager gets to make her thermometer go up, it means that she is practicing the more mature pattern of neural activity that corresponds to more effective emotional regulation.
It is now evident how this is all relevant to anyone trying to improve their emotional regulation. If this research could be used to contribute to an intervention tool that people (children as young as 7 years old actually love "neurofeedbacking") could use to practice emotional regulation, how wonderful would it be for families all around the world? How amazing would it be if we could change connectivity patterns while the brains develops, and maybe even prevent maladaptive patterns (such as anxiety) before they become hardwired?
There is one way YOU could help with that. Kathrin is always looking for participants to take part in her studies. At the moment she is focusing on 10-year-old girls who are about to transition into secondary school**. If you want to participate in her study please contact her here.
In conclusion, we have a confession to make. The title of this post might be a bit of an overstatement. We actually suspect that children will keep on having their tantrum (they are probably very useful, somehow!) However, isn’t it absolutely wonderful that science is working to provide us with such tangible tools to improve the mental health and wellbeing of our children? This is actually not as good as no tantrum. It's better!
Brainy people: Mark Johnson, Evelyne Mercure, Kathrin Cohen Kadosh and Fred Dick. (So honoured to have 2/4 of these people on our Advisory Board! :D).
Published after revision by Dr Kathrin Cohen Kadosh.
*This research is funded by European Commission FP7 Braintrain grant (602186).
** The experiments will be based at Surrey and Royal Holloway, travel expenses +£50 book token are covered by the university. More details and a contact form can be found on Kathrin's webpage.