Neural circuits of emotion regulation: a comparison of mindfulness-based and cognitive reappraisal strategies


Dealing with one’s emotions is a core skill in everyday life. Effective cognitive control strategies have been shown to be neurobiologically represented in prefrontal structures regulating limbic regions. In addition to cognitive strategies, mindfulness-associated methods are increasingly applied in psychotherapy. We compared the neurobiological mechanisms of these two strategies, i.e. cognitive reappraisal and mindfulness, during both the cued expectation and perception of negative and potentially negative emotional pictures. Fifty-three healthy participants were examined with functional magnetic resonance imaging (47 participants included in analysis). Twenty-four subjects applied mindfulness, 23 used cognitive reappraisal. On the neurofunctional level, both strategies were associated with comparable activity of the medial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. When expecting negative versus neutral stimuli, the mindfulness group showed stronger activations in ventro- and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, supramarginal gyrus as well as in the left insula. During the perception of negative versus neutral stimuli, the two groups only differed in an increased activity in the caudate in the cognitive group. Altogether, both strategies recruited overlapping brain regions known to be involved in emotion regulation. This result suggests that common neural circuits are involved in the emotion regulation by mindfulness-based and cognitive reappraisal strategies. Identifying differential activations being associated with the two strategies in this study might be one step towards a better understanding of differential mechanisms of change underlying frequently used psychotherapeutic interventions.

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This work was supported by Swiss National Science Funds (SNSF) Grant No. 3200B0 12120. The SNSF had no influence on study design, data analysis and interpretation and manuscript preparation.

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Correspondence to Annette B. Brühl.

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Opialla, S., Lutz, J., Scherpiet, S. et al. Neural circuits of emotion regulation: a comparison of mindfulness-based and cognitive reappraisal strategies. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci 265, 45–55 (2015).

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  • Emotional anticipation
  • fMRI
  • Amygdala
  • Emotion regulation