A new study from researchers at the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Ghent University has found that a different part of the brain is activated when people are able to choose, rather than be instructed, to suppress an emotion, a UCL press release says.

The team, whose research was published in Brain Structure and Function, scanned the brains of healthy people as they were shown pictures and told they could choose whether to feel or suppress the emotions that the picture elicited. Afterward, the researchers scanned the same people as they were given visual clues, but this time, ordered them to either feel or suppress the emotion. When the participants chose to suppress emotion, the dorso-medial prefrontal cortex of the brain was activated, and when they acted under orders, the lateral prefrontal cortex of the brain was activated.

The dorso-medial prefrontal cortex has also been linked to decisions to inhibit movement, the UCL press release says. "We think controlling one's emotions and controlling one's behavior involve overlapping mechanisms," said lead author Simone Kuhn in the statement. "We should distinguish between voluntary and instructed control of emotions, in the same way as we can distinguish between making up our own mind about what do, versus following instructions."

The researchers believe the work has implications for mental health research, and that the dorso-medial prefrontal cortex could become a target for therapies for conditions that involve a loss of emotional control, UCL adds.

Kuhn S, Haggard P, Brass M. Differences between endogenous and exogenous emotion inhibition in the human brain. Brain Structure and Function. 2013; doi: 10.1007. Accessed on May 10, 2013.