The relationship between the size of a brain structure and the ability to recover from traumatic experiences also may influence overall personality type, according to a study from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers. In a followup to earlier findings that an area of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) appears thicker in those who can better control their emotional response to unpleasant memories, the investigators found that study participants who exhibited better fear inhibition also score higher in measures of extraversion – an energetic, outgoing personality. The report appears in the Nov. 28 issue of NeuroReport.
"Some studies have demonstrated links between extraversion or the trait of neuroticism and the overall activity of brain regions that include the mOFC. But this is the first time anyone has looked at the potential relation of both brain structure and fear extinction to personality traits," says Mohammed Milad, PhD, of the MGH Department of Psychiatry, a co-lead author of the study.
Most individuals initially respond with physical and emotional distress to situations that bring back memories of traumatic events, but such responses usually diminish over time, as the situations are repeated without unpleasant occurrences. The ability to suppress those negative responses is called "extinction memory," and its deficiency may lead to anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder. In their previous study, the MGH team focused on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex – an area on the lower surface of the brain that includes the mOFC and is believed to inhibit the activity of the amygdala, a structure known to be involved with fear. The current report combined the data analyzed in that study – published in the July 26, 2005, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science – with the results from a standard personality test. Since earlier research has associated levels of extraversion and neuroticism – oversensitivity and emotional instability – with vulnerability to anxiety disorders, the current experiment focused on those traits.
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