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Adult Maturational Changes and Dysfunctions in Emotion Regulation


George Niederehe, Ph.D.
Division of Translational Research


This initiative aims to stimulate mechanistic research on how age- and sex-related changes in emotion processing over the adult life course interact with and may inform the understanding of affective dysregulation in adult mental disorders. If successful, such research will clarify how maturational shifts (or lack thereof) relate to disorders in the integrative neural-behavioral mechanisms of affect regulation. The initiative is expected to strengthen the field of research on aging-related emotion processing issues in mental disorders and expand the lifespan developmental component within the NIMH portfolio of psychopathology research.


For most adults, normal aging is associated with general trends toward improved emotion regulation (increasing positive and decreasing negative affect, greater emotional stability, higher life satisfaction, a “positivity” bias in information-processing).1, 2 As compared with younger adults, older adults often show superior emotion regulation capacities, employ different strategies for executive control of emotional information,3 and recruit different neural networks in performing affective tasks. Such patterns have been variously hypothesized to stem from increased motivation to maintain emotional well-being,4 learning of more skillful and efficient emotion processing strategies, or compensatory adaptations to age-related brain changes. There is also considerable evidence that men and women process emotions differently,5 though sex differences may be modulated as part of the aging process.

Mood and anxiety disorders are considered examples of affect dysregulation. However, knowledge tends to be limited about the specific emotion processing deficits involved, and how these may change with maturation. With only a few exceptions,6, 7 there has been little scientific investigation of the extent to which adults with affective disorders manifest or fail to show the normative maturational shifts, or at what point(s) during the adult lifespan they tend to traverse divergent trajectories.

The initiative aims to support research designed to clarify these patterns, at neurobiological as well as behavioral levels of analysis, in adults who experience affective disorders, and to deepen our understanding of the mechanisms involved in their emotion dysregulation. Studies leveraging the concepts, methods, and findings emerging from research on normative adult emotional development, including environmental and life course factors, would be of particular interest, so as to investigate variation and maturational shifts in emotion regulation across adults with mood and anxiety disorders together with adults without such psychopathology. The initiative will encourage research that assesses emotional processes dimensionally, integrating across multiple levels of analysis and employing cutting-edge methodology from such fields as cognitive and affective neuroscience, neuroimaging, neurophysiology, gene expression and epigenetics, and neuroendocrinology. Ideally, such studies would examine multiple domains of emotion processing so as to address, in aging adults, the key developmental concept of dynamic interactions among differentially maturing brain systems.8 The particular age ranges over which maturational changes are examined may vary from study to study, depending on the rationales provided by the investigators for their selection. It is scientifically essential that these studies attend to sex differences as a central issue and assess or control for medical comorbidity as a potential confounding influence.

The initiative aims to advance our understanding of interlinked emotion processing and neurobiological change trajectories in adult mood and anxiety disorders, as set against the normative backdrop of generally improved emotion regulation with aging. Relevant studies may also identify novel mental health intervention/prevention targets or provide clues as to which available strategies might be optimally applied to normalize emotion dysregulation or to build emotional resilience at different stages of the adult life cycle.

Areas of interest include, but are not limited to:

  • Research clarifying specific emotion processing irregularities characteristic of aging individuals with affective disorders;
  • Investigations of whether or to what degree individuals aging with chronic or recurrent affective disorders manifest normative maturational shifts in their patterns of emotion regulation, particularly with respect to the underlying mechanics;
  • Studies identifying trajectories of change in adult affective regulation and associated neurobiological and neurobehavioral factors, and clarifying points in the adult life course at which trajectories may diverge for affectively dysregulated subgroups;
  • Studies evaluating differences in the brain circuits or cortical areas recruited during emotional challenge or task performance as a function of age, sex, and mental disorder, and whether such differences predict resilience against onset or deterioration of course in mental disorders; and,
  • Studies employing efficient multi-cohort designs to estimate adult neurodevelopmental changes relevant to emotion regulation processes.

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1 Isaacowitz, D. M., Blanchard-Fields, F. (2012). Linking process and outcomes in the study of emotion and aging. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 3-17.

2 Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2005). Aging and motivated cognition: The positivity effect in attention and memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 496-502.

3 Urry, H. L., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Emotion regulation in older age. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 352-357.

4 Carstensen, L. L., Fung, H., & Charles, S. (2003). Socioemotional selectivity theory and the regulation of emotion in the second half of life. Motivation and Emotion, 27, 103-123.

5 Spalek, K., Fastenrath, M., Ackermann, S., Auschra, B., Coynel, D., Frey, J.,…Milnik, A. (2015). Sex-dependent dissociation between emotional appraisal and memory: A large-scale behavioral and fMRI study. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(3), 920-935.

6 Brassen, S., Gamer, M., Peters, J., Gluth, S., & Buchel, C. (2012). Don’t look back in anger! Responsiveness to missed chances in successful and nonsuccessful aging. Science, 336, 612-614.

7 Smoski, M. J., LaBar, K. S., & Steffens, D. C. (2014). Relative effectiveness of reappraisal and distraction in regulating emotion in late-life depression. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 22, 898-907.

8 Casey, B. J., Oliveri, M. E., & Insel, T. (2014). A neurodevelopmental perspective on the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) framework. Biological Psychiatry, 76, 350-353.