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By: Olivia Kalinich, LMHC
Emotional well-being plays a crucial role in our overall quality of life, affecting our relationships, productivity, and mental health. One fascinating area of the brain that has been implicated in the literature as being associated with an overall general positive sense of well-being is the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pgACC), a brain region that has captured the attention of neuroscientists due to its vital role in emotional processing and the psychological concept of well-being.
The pregenual anterior cingulate cortex is a region located in the frontal part of the brain's cingulate cortex. It is positioned just behind the forehead, nestled in the medial frontal area. The pgACC has been identified as a key node of the default mode network, the part of our brain that subserves our sense of self, and has been implicated in modulating pain, whether physical pain or emotional pain.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the pgACC is its involvement in emotional regulation. Emotional regulation refers to our ability to manage and modulate our emotions effectively. This means being able to understand, express, and cope with our feelings in a way that promotes well-being and adaptive behavior. A well-regulated pgACC will help the individual not overly identify with their emotional states, allowing them to identify, tolerate and move through more uncomfortable types of emotions. This allows the individual to identify “I am feeling sad”, rather than “I am sadness”, and allows them to recruit other networks, such as the salience network, to help process this emotional state and identify what’s important in knowing how to move through feeling sad.
Research has shown that the pgACC plays a key role in assessing the emotional significance of stimuli from both external and internal sources. It helps us recognize emotional cues in others and ourselves, allowing us to empathize and respond appropriately. Additionally, the pgACC is essential in mediating the experience of empathy, compassion, and social connectedness, all of which are crucial for emotional well-being.
Numerous studies have highlighted the significance of the pgACC in influencing emotional well-being. Studies have found that individuals with an adaptive functionally connected pgACC reported higher levels of positive emotions and life satisfaction. Conversely, a maladaptive functionally connected pgACC has been associated with an increased risk of developing mood disorders like depression and anxiety (Caruana et. Al 2018; Wang et. Al 2022; Horn et. Al 2010)
Another study showed that lower volume of the pgACC was positively correlated with issues translating emotional salience into behaviors, commonly known as anhedonia, in patients with Major Depressive Disorder (Wang et. Al 2022).
Caruana et. al found that the pgACC was devoted to emotional and interoceptive functions. Interestingly in their study, they found that the stimulation of the pgACC produced a sense of amusement expressed through laughter, or what the researchers called a sense of mirth. When stimulating this area, patients began smiling and laughing. They reported feeling astonished because they could not offer any explanation for their perceived laughter and smiling, indicating the pgACC is implicated in positive emotional responses (Caruana et. Al 2018).
Sturm et al 2013 conducted a study focusing on self-conscious emotions, such as embarrassment, shame, and guilt. What they found was that smaller volume pgACC was associated with physiological and behavioral self-conscious emotional reactivity, showing that the pgACC was the only brain region that was a significant predictor of self-conscious emotions. This correlates to our perceived emotional states to our overall sense of self, with a smaller volume pgACC more likely to predict self-conscious emotions such as embarrassment and shame.
Additionally, Schwartz et al 2019 found that a weaker functional connectivity in the pgACC, contributed to the sustained symptoms of sadness inflexibility in patients with Major Depressive disorder, when compared to healthy controls. Correlating that the pgACC when functionally stronger in connection, can help improve flexibility in thought and emotional states.
We here are Neurofeedback Services of NY, using the infraslow frequency band, have developed protocols that work directly on upregulating the pgACC to strengthen its connection within cortex. By upregulating the pgACC we have a much greater potential to improve emotional well-being. We have seen this in our practice with clients who report a much greater window of tolerance for uncomfortable affect, reduced overall physical pain in the body, as well an overall greater sense of emotional well-being. They are better able to adapt to their surroundings, and report engaging in deeper cognitive processing work in their therapy sessions.
As our understanding of the human brain continues to evolve, the role of the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex in emotional well-being becomes increasingly evident. This small but mighty region holds the key to understanding how emotions are processed, regulated, and ultimately integrated into our daily lives.
By uncovering the secrets of the pgACC, neuroscientists and psychologists alike are paving the way for innovative interventions and therapies to enhance emotional well-being, such as ISF Neurofeedback. Targeting the pgACC could prove to be a game-changer in promoting emotional resilience and overall mental health.
As we move forward, it's essential to remain open to the discoveries that neuroscience brings. The potential of the human brain is boundless, and with continued research, we may unlock even more profound insights into our emotional lives, leading to a happier and healthier society
If you are interesting in learning more about ISF Neurofeedback, consider attending our workshops! Learn more →
Caruana, F et. al, Motor and emotional behaviours elicited by electrical stimulation of the human cingulate cortex, Brain, Volume 141, Issue 10, October 2018, Pages 3035–3051, 10.1093/brain/awy219
Horn DI, Yu C, Steiner J, Buchmann J, Kaufmann J, Osoba A, Eckert U, Zierhut KC, Schiltz K, He H, Biswal B, Bogerts B, Walter M. Glutamatergic and resting-state functional connectivity correlates of severity in major depression - the role of pregenual anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula. Front Syst Neurosci. 2010 Jul 15;4:33. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2010.00033. PMID: 20700385; PMCID: PMC2914530.
Jaclyn Schwartz, Sarah J. Ordaz, Katharina Kircanski, Tiffany C. Ho, Elena G. Davis, M. Catalina Camacho, Ian H. Gotlib, Resting-state functional connectivity and inflexibility of daily emotions in major depression, Journal of Affective Disorders, Volume 249, 2019, Pages 26-34, ISSN 0165-0327, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2019.01.040. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165032718318913)
Virginia E. Sturm and others, Role of right pregenual anterior cingulate cortex in self-conscious emotional reactivity, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 8, Issue 4, April 2013, Pages 468–474, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nss023
Wang KL, Liang K, Wang LJ, Shen JF, Zhu GH, Zhang SX, Wang XZ, Wang Y, Wang YY. The association of glutamate level in pregenual anterior cingulate, anhedonia, and emotion-behavior decoupling in patients with major depressive disorder. Asian J Psychiatr. 2022 Dec;78:103306. doi: 10.1016/j.ajp.2022.103306. Epub 2022 Oct 20. PMID: 36308992.