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While previous studies have suggested that higher levels of cognitive performance may be related to greater wellbeing and resilience, little is known about the associations between neural circuits engaged by cognitive tasks and wellbeing and resilience, and whether genetics or environment contribute to these associations.
The current study consisted of 253 monozygotic and dizygotic adult twins, including a subsample of 187 early-life trauma-exposed twins, with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging data from the TWIN-E study. Wellbeing was measured using the COMPAS-W Wellbeing Scale while resilience was defined as a higher level of positive adaptation (higher levels of wellbeing) in the presence of trauma exposure. We probed both sustained attention and working memory processes using a Continuous Performance Task in the scanner.
We found significant negative associations between resilience and activation in the bilateral anterior insula engaged during sustained attention. Multivariate twin modelling showed that the association between resilience and the left and right insula activation was mostly driven by common genetic factors, accounting for 71% and 87% of the total phenotypic correlation between these variables, respectively. There were no significant associations between wellbeing/resilience and neural activity engaged during working memory updating.
The findings suggest that greater resilience to trauma is associated with less activation of the anterior insula during a condition requiring sustained attention but not working memory updating. This possibly suggests a pattern of ‘neural efficiency’ (i.e. more efficient and/or attenuated activity) in people who may be more resilient to trauma.
Although mental wellbeing has been linked with positive health outcomes, including longevity and improved emotional and cognitive functioning, studies examining the underlying neural mechanisms of both subjective and psychological wellbeing have been sparse. We assessed whether both forms of wellbeing are associated with neural activity engaged during positive and negative emotion processing and the extent to which this association is driven by genetics or environment.
We assessed mental wellbeing in 230 healthy adult monozygotic and dizygotic twins using a previously validated questionnaire (COMPAS-W) and undertook functional magnetic resonance imaging during a facial emotion viewing task. We used linear mixed models to analyse the association between COMPAS-W scores and emotion-elicited neural activation. Univariate twin modelling was used to evaluate heritability of each brain region. Multivariate twin modelling was used to compare twin pairs to assess the contributions of genetic and environmental factors to this association.
Higher levels of wellbeing were associated with greater neural activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, localised in the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), in response to positive emotional expressions of happiness. Univariate twin modelling showed activity in the IFG to have 20% heritability. Multivariate twin modelling suggested that the association between wellbeing and positive emotion-elicited neural activity was driven by common variance from unique environment (r = 0.208) rather than shared genetics.
Higher mental wellbeing may have a basis in greater engagement of prefrontal neural regions in response to positive emotion, and this association may be modifiable by unique life experiences.
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