Brain and Body

New Research From MIT Reveals How the Brain Process Emotion: New Insights Into Mental Illness

April 1, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

Photo credit: Screen capture from video by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

The scientists identified specific brain circuits that could play a major role in mental illnesses and depression.

New research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have revealed two populations of neuronal circuits that under normal conditions, correctly assign emotional events within the brain.

The neuronal circuits were found in an almond-sized region of the brain known as the amygdala, which is associated with emotional control, decision-making, and memory formation in complex vertebrates like humans.

The MIT neuroscientists suggest that when these neuronal circuits go wrong, it could lead to mental illnesses and depression.

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The senior author of the study, Kay Tye, stated in a news release, “I think this project really cuts across specific categorizations of diseases and could be applicable to almost any mental illness,”

In the video below, MIT News explains the findings of the study:


In a previous study, Tye’s team of neuroscientists identified two populations of neurons involved in processing positive and negative emotions. They also found a correlation between anxiety and the ventral hippocampus in the brain.

Their latest findings suggest that to fully understand how the brain processes emotion, neuroscientists will have to dig deeper into the understanding of how these specific neuronal circuits operate within the brain.

“Five or 10 years ago, everything was all about specific brain regions. And then in the past four or five years there’s been more focus on specific projections. And now, this study presents a window into the next era, when even specific projections are not specific enough. There’s still heterogeneity even when you subdivide at this level,” Tye says. “We’ve still got a long way to go in terms of appreciating the full complexities of the brain.”

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“Neuroscience is quickly moving beyond the classical idea of ‘one brain region equals one function,’” says Joshua Johansen, a team leader at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan, who was not involved in the research. “This paper represents an important step in this process by showing that within the amygdala, the way distinct populations of cells process information is a critical determinant of how emotional responses arise.”

The team at MIT hopes that their work will shed more light on the cause of mental illnesses, which could lead to new therapies that’s able to target these specific brain circuits in the future.

The findings were published in the journal Neuron.

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