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The Neural Basis of Emotions

Emotions are an intricate and fundamental part of the human experience, influencing our thoughts, actions, and overall well-being. While the experience of emotions is deeply personal, researchers have made significant strides in understanding the neural basis behind these states of being. In this blog post, we will delve into the core emotions, explore the key chemicals and hormones associated with each emotion, examine how the brain processes emotions, and discuss the impact of natural supplements and anti-depression drugs on emotional well-being.

Core Emotions and Their Neural Correlates

The core emotions are a set of basic and universal emotional experiences that form the foundation of our emotional lives. They include happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. While these emotions represent the primary building blocks, it's important to note that emotions are incredibly nuanced, and a wide range of secondary emotions can stem from the core ones.

The experience of each emotion is associated with specific patterns of neural activity in various brain regions [1]. For instance, happiness is linked to increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and striatum, while sadness involves the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, and amygdala. Anger is associated with heightened activity in the amygdala, insula, and hypothalamus, while fear involves the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex [2]. Disgust activates the insula and basal ganglia, whereas surprise activates the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.

Key Chemicals and Hormones in Emotion Regulation

Neurotransmitters and hormones play crucial roles in regulating emotions, contributing to the physiological and psychological aspects of our emotional experiences. Here are some of the key chemicals and hormones associated with core emotions:

Serotonin: Often referred to as the "feel-good" neurotransmitter, serotonin is associated with positive emotions such as happiness and contentment. It helps regulate mood, sleep, appetite, and social behaviour.

Dopamine: Linked to reward and motivation, dopamine is involved in experiencing pleasure and excitement. It plays a role in feelings of happiness and is associated with the anticipation of positive outcomes.

Norepinephrine: This hormone is released during stressful situations, promoting vigilance, arousal, and the fight-or-flight response. It plays a role in fear and anger.

Oxytocin: Known as the "love hormone," oxytocin promotes feelings of trust, bonding, and social connection. It is associated with feelings of love, empathy, and generosity.

Cortisol: Produced in response to stress, cortisol helps regulate the body's physiological response to threats. Elevated levels of cortisol are associated with feelings of anxiety and fear.

Processing Emotions in the Brain

The processing of emotions involves a complex interplay between various brain regions. The amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure deep within the brain, plays a crucial role in the initial emotional response and the formation of emotional memories. It evaluates sensory stimuli for potential threats and triggers the release of hormones and neurotransmitters related to the emotional experience.

The prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher-order cognitive functions, plays a crucial role in regulating and modulating emotional responses [3]. It helps in reappraising emotions, managing impulses, and making rational decisions during emotional situations. The insula is involved in self-awareness and interoception (sensing internal signals from your body), enabling us to perceive and experience our emotions.

Understanding Anti-Depression Drugs and Emotions

Anti-depression drugs, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are commonly prescribed to treat depression and related mood disorders. These medications work by increasing the availability of serotonin in the brain, helping to regulate mood and alleviate depressive symptoms. By targeting the reuptake of serotonin, SSRIs prolong its presence in the synapses, enhancing its effects on mood regulation.

The Role of Natural Supplements in Emotion Regulation

Natural supplements like nootropics and adaptogens have gained attention for their potential to support emotional well-being. While research in this area is still evolving, some studies suggest that certain natural supplements may have positive effects on emotions.

Nootropics: Nootropics, also known as "smart drugs," are substances that are claimed to enhance cognitive function. Some specific nootropics, such as L-theanine (found in green tea), may promote relaxation and reduce stress without causing drowsiness. Additionally, omega-3 fatty acids and certain vitamins and minerals have been associated with improved mood regulation.

Adaptogens: Adaptogens are a group of herbs and botanicals that are believed to help the body adapt to stress and restore balance. While their primary focus is on physical well-being, some adaptogens, such as Rhodiola Rosea and Ashwagandha, may also have a positive impact on emotional well-being, helping to reduce anxiety and improve mood.

Natural Alternatives:

Rhodiola Rosea: A study explored the effects of Rhodiola rosea on individuals with mild to moderate depression [4]. The findings suggested that Rhodiola supplementation led to significant improvements in depressive symptoms, fatigue, and overall emotional well-being.

Ashwagandha: Another study investigated the effects of Ashwagandha on stress and anxiety [5]. The results indicated that Ashwagandha supplementation reduced stress and anxiety levels, improving emotional resilience and well-being.


Daniel Glassbrook, PhD

Daniel is a sports scientist and researcher, currently working as the first team sports scientist for the Newcastle Falcons Rugby Club, and a postdoctoral researcher in sports related concussion at Durham University.


1. Damasio, A. R. (1998). Emotion in the perspective of an integrated nervous system. Brain research reviews, 26(2-3), 83-86.

2. LeDoux, J. (1998). Fear and the brain: where have we been, and where are we going?. Biological psychiatry, 44(12), 1229-1238.

3. Kringelbach, M. L. (2005). The human orbitofrontal cortex: linking reward to hedonic experience. Nature reviews neuroscience, 6(9), 691-702.

4. Darbinyan, V., Kteyan, A., Panossian, A., Gabrielian, E., Wikman, G., & Wagner, H. (2000). Rhodiola rosea in stress induced fatigue—a double blind cross-over study of a standardized extract SHR-5 with a repeated low-dose regimen on the mental performance of healthy physicians during night duty. Phytomedicine, 7(5), 365-371.

5. Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian journal of psychological medicine, 34(3), 255-262.

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