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Regret linked to the ability to cope with stress

"We found that not all forms of regret are the same and they derive from different circuits in the brain.”

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Young European bearded young male clenches teeth in desperation, regrets about something, dressed in casual t shirt, isolated over white background. Negative human emotions and feelings concept
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By Danny Halpin via SWNS

How people feel regret could be linked to their ability to cope with stress, according to new research.

Studies on mice have shown that they feel sensitivity to two distinct types of regret and that these different thought processes come from different parts of the brain.

Researchers also discovered a genetic predisposition among mice towards being less able to cope with stress which they say increases vulnerability to depression and is linked to one type of regret.

However healthy, stress-resilient animals were more sensitive to another type.

Study senior author Dr. Brian Sweis, of Icahn School of Medicine in New York, said: “Until now, little has been known about how sensitivity to regret may be altered in mood disorders like depression."

“For example, is regret exaggerated and do individuals hyper-ruminate on past decisions, or are those with depression numb to this emotion?

“Is this adaptive or maladaptive, and are individuals unable to learn from their mistakes?

“To date, for patients struggling with depression, there has been no clear description of regret as a defining feature of the condition.”

Published in the journal Science Advances, the study built on previous work demonstrating that rats and mice are capable of having regret-like thoughts.

The researchers used the principle of neuroeconomics – the study of how the physical limits of the brain give rise to biases we have when making decisions – which enabled them to show how feelings of regret can affect future decisions.

To do so, the team set up a decision-making task for mice called Restaurant Row which had the rodents navigating a maze in search of food.

Sorrorful mixed race woman with staring look having fine crop of hair wearing brown sweater holding her hands on mouth regreting what she done looking sadly into camera. Negative emotions cooncept
(Cast Of Thousands via Shutterstock)

They were given a limited amount of time each day which they would spend in so-called restaurants with different unique flavors.

If a mouse went into a restaurant, it would have to wait until after a countdown of between one and 30 seconds to receive its reward.

They found that mice which were more sensitive to stress were prone to feel one type of regret known as an economic violation – when the animals decided to leave a preferential restaurant and ended up with something worse.

While those that were more stress resilient were more likely to spend too much of their limited time waiting for rewards and have to cut their losses and move on.

Although both types of regret may involve reflecting on the road not traveled and what could have been, type one regret emphasizes the choice of having let something good go, while type two regret emphasizes having to change your mind.

The study found that the weight these mistakes carry in altering future decisions are biologically distinct and uniquely linked to the ability to cope with stress.

Co-author Dr. Scott Russo said: “We discovered that stress-susceptible mice were hypersensitive to type one regret and insensitive to type two regret while, conversely, healthy mice were insensitive to type one regret and only sensitive to type two, enhanced more so in stress-resilient mice.

“These findings tell us that the way the brain processes mistakes is multifactorial and linked to the ability to cope with stress, and that one type of regret is part of a healthy set of emotional traits while the other may be part of the disease process itself.

“Like pain, some forms of which are healthy and adaptive while others are pathological, we found that not all forms of regret are the same and they derive from different circuits in the brain.”

Dr. Sweis said this research could have a significant impact on clinical practice by informing the way in which mental health providers interview patients with mood disorders.

He added: “Prior to our study, professionals may not have thought to ask patients more specific questions during psychiatric evaluations detailing and subcategorizing regret with the level of delicacy we’ve outlined.

“Our work may improve how psychiatric interviews could be conducted to better identify what thought processes should be reinforced versus extinguished, informed by cutting-edge scientific discoveries in neuroscience and computational psychiatry.

“Our research could help steer clinician-patient interviews toward discerning specific circuits that may be contributing to one’s mood disorders and develop therapeutic approaches accordingly.”

The Mount Sinai researchers also discovered that a gene known to regulate stress responses in the brain, called CREB, may also influence the two types of regret in separate brain regions – the medial prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens.

Dr. Romain Durand-de Cuttoli, first author of the study, said: “In both humans and mice, this gene is known to promote stress resilience in the medial prefrontal cortex while conferring the opposite, vulnerability to stress, in the nucleus accumbens.”

Until now it has not been clear what role, if any, CREB plays in complex emotional processes but now the researchers believe that manipulating CREB activity in both these brain regions could lead to new therapies which would alter aspects of regret in order to restore healthy emotional processing.

Dr. Durand-de Cuttoli added: “Knowing that subtypes of regret-processing stem from different brain regions has broad implications for appreciating which brain circuits are not only driving different choices but the different ways in which we reflect on our past.

“And how more precise interventions, whether through drug development or more invasive neuromodulation approaches, tailored to specific pathological emotional traits may be targeted to treat mood disorders more effectively.”

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