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Understanding Emotional Actions

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EmotionalActions (Understanding Emotional Actions)

Reporting period: 2015-04-01 to 2017-03-31

Emotions shape our personal lives and society at large. In Europe emotional disorders affect one in five people; it is the most chronic and the second to most disabling health condition. The stakes to better understand our emotional behaviour are high; however there is still a lot to gain. Traditionally, emotions are thought to guide our behaviour either through fast instincts or deliberately selected actions. Current explanations of emotional health and disease frequently focus on one of these single components in isolation (or regard them as exclusive antagonists) and neglect putative interactions. For example, aggressive behaviour, with its enormous societal consequences and costs, is commonly viewed as loss of emotional control that inhibits inapproriate action. However they are also related to strong instinctual drives. These characterizations likely underestimate our emotional behaviour’s complexity and diversity.
This project investigated a complementary account: in humans optimal emotional behaviour arises not from instinctual and deliberate action selection systems individually, but from their interaction, mediated in our brain by a likely uniquely human prefrontal control system.
Volman et al. (in prep) shows that the instinctual and deliberate action selection systems can indeed be measured independently. Multiple biases driven by emotions or action goals influence the early selection of an action. Already a few 100 ms after an emotional event these biases start influencing the chosen action. The importance of understanding these processes is supported by the neuroimaging studies on Borderline disorder and psychopathy (Bertsch et al., in press; Volman et al., 2016) showing that control of emotional biases during action selection is altered in these disoders. It is striking that both these disorders that are characterised by altered emotional behaviour and reduced emotional impulse control, show reduced communication between the lateral prefrontal cortex and the amygdala (see figure). This network has previously been shown to be crucial for control of emotional actions (Volman et al., 2011). Together these studies provide a framework for future research to improve understanding of affective disorders related to aggression, by studying if emotional or goal-driven biases drive altered emotional behaviour and reduced control.
Overview of results & dissemination

1. Bertsch K, Roelofs K, Roch PJ, Ma B, Hensel S, Herpertz SC, Volman I (in press). Neural Correlates of Emotional Action Control in Anger-Prone Women with Borderline Personality Disorder. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience
2. Radke S, Volman I, Kokal I, Roelofs K, de Bruijn ERA, Toni I (2017). Oxytocin reduces amygdala responses during threat approach. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 79, 160-166.
3. Volman I, Von Borries AKL, Bulten BH, Verkes RJ, Toni I, Roelofs K (2016). Testosterone modulates altered prefrontal control of emotional actions in psychopathic offenders. eNeuro, 3(1) e0107-15.2016.

Under review/ in preparation
4. Volman I, Den Ouden H, Roelofs K (in revision). Emotional action control: the role of serotonin in health and disease
5. Tyborowska A, Volman I, Niermann HCM, Pouwels JL, Smeekens S, Cillessen AHN, Toni I, Roelofs K (under review). Early-life and pubertal stress differentially modulate grey matter development in human adolescents
6. Volman I, Dayan P, Bhatt J, Dolan R, Bestmann S (in preparation). Instrumental and Pavlovian biases differentially interfer with fast actions

Scientific talks
1. XVth ISSPD Congress, Heidelberg, Germany (2017)
2. Psychiatry research meeting, Oxford, United Kingdom (2017)
3. NTT meeting, Tokyo, Japan (2016)
4. Magstim Conference, Oxford, UK (2015)
5. Social Brain seminar, Kings College London, UK (2015)
6. Department of Basic Psychological Research and Research Methods, University of Vienna, Austria (2015)

Press coverage
• In general: Item in Horizon magazine, title: ‘Where is my mind’
• Related to Volman et al. (2016): Items on internet webpages, including Medical News Today, Neuroscience News, Science Daily, Radboud University, Testosterone Resource, Lapis Lazuli's webpage, Kennislink (in Dutch), NWO (in Dutch), CrimeXpertise (in French)
Impact. Societal & economic.
Our current lack of understanding of the relation between emotions and behaviour is problematic for healthy and psychopathological populations2,12. In Europe, one in five people suffer from emotional disorders, constituting the second most common cause of disability, and by far the strongest contributor to chronic illness1. Emotional disorders constitute an enormous cost for Europe. For example, in Denmark, Finland and the UK mental disorders account for more than 40% of social welfare benefits and disability pensions1. Unfortunately, the treatment response of such disorders is low. The outcomes of Bertsch et al. (in press) and Volman et al. (2016) have the potential to be further developed to inform more personalised treatment of borderline disorder and psychopathy. The improved understanding on processes underlying emotional actions from Volman et al. (in prep) can aid in timely diagnosis allowing preventive measure to be taken preventing development of emotional disorders.
Relative to the popular study of emotional perception, its interplay with action has received less attention in European academia. This is surprising given the critical role of action (or lack thereof) in the maintenance of (pathological) emotional behaviour. The increased understanding of processes underlying emotional actions (Volman et al., in prep) as well as understanding on its development during adolescents (Tyborowska et al., under review) has advanced Europe’s competitive research environment. Fruitful research collaborations with collegues in Germany have provided critical research results (Bertsch et al., in press) and will provide more in the future (collaborative research project on social anxiety and oxytocin, as well as aggression). I have writen a review paper to further advance the role of emotional action within European research (Volman et al., in revision).