Biofeedback redux

IT SEEMS that emotional self-control really does come from within.

Previous studies have shown that people can learn to control the activity levels of specific brain regions to alter, for example, pain levels, when shown real-time “neurofeedback” from fMRI brain images. Now a similar approach may help psychopathic criminals increase their emotional fluency.

Niels Birbaumer and Ranganatha Sitaram from the University of Tübingen in Germany found that by showing healthy volunteers the activity levels of the insula, a brain region important in emotional processing, represented in real time as a thermometer bar on a screen, the volunteers could control their emotional responses.

After four training sessions they had learned to raise and lower their insula activity levels, in turn changing how they rated the emotional quality of disturbing or neutral images.

Three psychopathic prison inmates who lacked a normal insula response trained the same way. After four days, one appeared to have learned to raise his insula activity towards more normal levels. It opens a potential avenue for treating emotional disorders such as psychopathy or social phobia, the team told a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Atlanta, Georgia, last week.

Tame your brain to keep your cool