Strength, Affect Regulation, and Subcortical Morphology in Military Pilots

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Previous studies have shown links of body composition and fitness measures with brain structure, as well as with different aspects of emotional adjustment and well-being. However, the possible role of trait emotion-regulation success in the relationship between fitness/body composition and emotion-related subcortical structures has never been directly addressed.


Twenty-three elite helicopter pilots were assessed in fat mass percentage, an endurance test to volitional exhaustion, bench-press power output, and negative urgency (trait affect regulation failure). Their brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging to estimate the size of the accumbens/amygdala, considered together, and the thalamus. Resulting correlations were used to test the relationship between body composition/fitness measures and brain structures’ size, and the role of negative urgency therein, using structural equation modeling.


Fat mass percentage was associated with the size of the thalamus and the amygdala/accumbens. In the latter case, negative urgency and bench-press power output predicted structure size (and explained the effect of fat mass percentage away). In other words, bench-press power output and emotion regulation success (but not endurance performance) were associated with a larger amygdala/accumbens size.


Bench-press power output and emotion regulation success are independently associated with a larger amygdala/accumbens size, although present evidence does not allow for determination of causal directionality.

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