The neurobiology of wellness: 1 H-MRS correlates of agency, flexibility and neuroaffective reserves in healthy young adults

Neuroimage. 2021 Jan 15;225:117509. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.117509. Epub 2020 Oct 27.


Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS) is a noninvasive imaging technique that measures the concentration of metabolites in defined areas of the human brain in vivo. The underlying structure of natural metabolism-emotion relationships is unknown. Further, there is a wide range of between-person differences in metabolite concentration in healthy individuals, but the significance of this variation for understanding emotion in healthy humans is unclear. Here we investigated the relationship of two emotional constructs, agency and flexibility, with the metabolites glutamate and glutamine (Glx), N-acetylaspartate (tNAA), choline (Cho), creatine (tCr), and myo-inositol (Ins) in the right dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) in medically and psychiatrically healthy volunteers (N = 20, 9 female; mean age = 22.8 years, SD = 3.40). The dACC was selected because this region is an integrative hub involved in multiple brain networks of emotion, cognition and behavior. Emotional traits were assessed using the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire Brief Form (MPQ-BF), an empirically derived self-report instrument with an orthogonal factor structure. Phenotypes evaluated were positive and negative agency (MPQ-BF Social Potency, Aggression), emotional and behavioral flexibility (MPQ-BF Absorption, Control-reversed), and positive and negative affect (MPQ-BF Social Closeness; Stress Reaction, Alienation). The resting concentration of tNAA in the dACC was robustly positively correlated with Absorption (r = +0.56, unadjusted p = .005), moderately positively correlated with Social Potency (r = +0.42, unadjusted p = .03), and robustly negatively correlated with Aggression (r = -0.59, unadjusted p = .003). Absorption and Aggression accounted for substantial variance in tNAA (R2 = 0.31, 0.35; combined R2 = 0.50), and survived correction for multiple comparisons (Holm-Bonferroni adjusted p = .032, 0.021, respectively). dACC Glx and Cho had modest relationships with behavioral flexibility and social affiliation that did not survive this multiple correction, providing effect sizes for future work. Principal Component Analysis (PCA) revealed a three-factor orthogonal solution indicating specific relationships between: 1) Glx and behavioral engagement; 2) Cho and affiliative bonding; and 3) tNAA and a novel dimension that we term neuroaffective reserves. Our results inform the neurobiology of agency and flexibility and lay the groundwork for understanding mechanisms of natural emotion using 1H-MRS.

Keywords: Dorsal anterior cingulate; Neurotypical adult volunteers; Personality; Single voxel proton magnetic spectroscopy; Trait emotion; tNAA.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adult
  • Affect*
  • Aspartic Acid / analogs & derivatives
  • Aspartic Acid / metabolism
  • Choline / metabolism
  • Cognitive Reserve*
  • Creatine / metabolism
  • Emotions*
  • Female
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism
  • Glutamine / metabolism
  • Gyrus Cinguli / diagnostic imaging
  • Gyrus Cinguli / metabolism*
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Inositol / metabolism
  • Male
  • Mental Health*
  • Personality Inventory
  • Principal Component Analysis
  • Proton Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy*
  • Young Adult


  • Glutamine
  • Aspartic Acid
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Inositol
  • N-acetylaspartate
  • Creatine
  • Choline