A functional magnetic resonance imaging study of cognitive emotion regulation in relation to individual differences in self-esteem

Master Thesis


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Objectives Self-esteem may affect the processing and regulation of emotion. However, it is unclear whether differences in self-esteem are associated with changes in initial emotional appraisal or engagement of emotion regulation. I investigated whether individual differences in self-esteem predicted brain responses to negative emotional stimuli: 1) when they were viewed without intentional regulation; and 2) during downregulation using cognitive reappraisal. Thirdly, I investigated whether self-esteem predicted reappraisal success. Method Twenty-nine healthy adults (age M=47, SD=15; 16 female) performed a cognitive reappraisal emotion regulation task during fMRI scanning. Participants viewed and subsequently reappraised or attended to negative and neutral images. Trait self-esteem (Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale) was included as a predictor in a whole-brain multiple regression analysis. Analyses were thresholded at p<.005, k>p20, p<.05 family-wise error (FWE)-corrected at cluster-level. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC; BA32) and the dorsal prefrontal cortex (PFC; BA6) were a priori regions of interest (ROI), since both have previously been reported in fMRI studies of self-esteem and cognitive reappraisal. A post-hoc ROI analysis tested the correspondence of self-esteem-related ACC activation with findings from a meta-analysis of emotion regulation. Ratings of negative emotional intensity following reappraisal trials were subtracted from ratings following attend-negative trials to index reappraisal success. Results Self-esteem was associated with potentiated ACC ROI activation during viewing of negative, compared to neutral, images (MNI x, y, z = -6, 17, 38, k=43, punc=.001 at peak, pFWE=.368 at cluster-level). For reappraisal compared to attended negative images, self-esteem was positively associated with activation in the left posterior insula (MNI x, y, z = -30, -10, 17, k=30, punc<.001 at peak, pFWE=.959 at cluster-level) and negatively associated with activation in the mid cingulate cortex (MNI x, y, z = 3, -34, 35, k=50, punc=.001 at peak, pFWE=.805 at clusterlevel). However, only the post-hoc ACC ROI analysis was significant after multiple comparison correction (MNI x, y, z = -6, 23, 38, k=22, punc=.001 at peak, pFWE=.021 at clusterlevel). For reappraisal, self-esteem was not related to activation in the ACC or dorsal PFC ROIs. Trait self-esteem did not correlate with reappraisal success, r =.16, p =.208. Conclusion Trait self-esteem may affect recruitment of the ACC during initial emotional appraisal. This may reflect successful automatic emotion regulation for high self-esteem, consistent with the demonstrated spatial overlap with a meta-analytic emotion regulation cluster. While selfesteem may affect brain responsivity during cognitive reappraisal, the observed trends must be interpreted carefully, since the findings do not survive correction for multiple comparisons, and emotional outcomes of applying reappraisal do not differ as a function of self-esteem. Taken together, these findings suggest that high trait self-esteem may be advantageous for rapid automatic emotion regulation, but not deliberate cognitive reappraisal.