How the Central Executive Network Impacts Mental Health

By Rishi Sood, MD

Imagine you’re the captain of a ship, steering through rough seas, navigating obstacles, and making quick decisions. In your brain, there’s a similar captain called the central executive network (CEN).

The CEN is in charge of managing your attention, solving problems, and keeping you focused on your tasks. This network is crucial for everything from doing homework to deciding how to act in different situations.

When this brain system is operating at full capacity, it helps you perform and feel your best. When it isn’t working optimally, it can negatively impact nearly every aspect of your life. Brain-imaging research increasingly suggests that dysfunction in brain networks like the CEN plays a major role in mental health disorders.

When your brain’s central executive network isn’t working optimally, it can negatively impact nearly every aspect of your life and can be associated with certain mental health disorders. Click To Tweet

In this blog, you’ll discover the important role of the CEN, how it’s related to 3 mental health issues, and how you can strengthen your CEN and mental well-being.

WHAT IS THE CENTRAL EXECUTIVE NETWORK?

The central executive network, also known as the frontoparietal network (FPN), is a team of brain regions that work together to control and manage your thoughts and actions. It includes areas such as:

  • Parts of the frontal lobe, which is located at the front of your brain
  • Parietal lobe, found on the top and back of your brain

These parts of the brain are involved in many executive functions, including:

  • Concentration—helping you stay focused on important tasks
  • Working memory—a form of short-term memory that involves holding information in your mind for a brief time while you manipulate it
  • Decision-making—making choices that fit with your goals
  • Problem-solving—following rules that help you solve complex issues
  • Information processing—integrating data from external and internal sources
  • Task switching—shifting attention from one task to another when necessary

To accomplish these functions, the CEN works with some brain networks while inhibiting others. In this way, the CEN is similar to a conductor of a symphony, enlisting some musicians to play loudly at specific times while quieting other instruments.

When your CEN conducts the symphony well, the music soars beautifully, and it improves your life and emotional well-being.

THE CEN’S ROLE IN EVERYDAY LIFE

Every day, you face situations that require focus and decision-making. Whether you’re solving math problems, writing an essay, or playing a sport, the CEN helps you stay on track.

The CEN is also at work when you need to pay attention on a Zoom meeting, remember instructions from your supervisor, or even resist the urge to check your phone while on the job.

It’s like having a coach in your brain that pushes you to concentrate and keeps you from getting distracted.

HOW THE CENTRAL EXECUTIVE NETWORK AFFECTS MENTAL HEALTH

The central executive network doesn’t just help you with work and school. It also plays a significant role in your mental health.

Let’s look at how the CEN influences various aspects of mental well-being:

  • Stress and Anxiety: When you’re stressed or anxious, the CEN helps you manage those feelings by focusing your mind on solutions or calming techniques. However, if the CEN is overwhelmed, it might be harder for you to cope with everyday stress, leading to more anxiety.

Findings in Trends in Neuroscience point to decreased functioning in the central executive network and other networks in people with anxiety disorders.

  • Depression: In some cases of depression, the CEN might not function as effectively. This can make it hard for someone to concentrate or make decisions, which are common challenges for those experiencing clinical depression.

Brain-imaging research on people with major depressive disorder (MDD) has found connectivity issues in the CEN and other brain networks, such as the default mode network and salience network.

  • ADHD: Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), also known as attention-deficit disorder (ADD), is often linked to difficulties with the CEN. People with ADHD might find it hard to focus, control impulses, or plan ahead because their central executive network isn’t coordinating their brain’s activities as smoothly as it should.

One functional brain-imaging study in Network Neuroscience found a relationship between ADHD symptoms and problems in the way brain networks, including the CEN, function.

Understanding how brain networks are involved in mental health problems opens the door to potential new treatment strategies. In particular, finding natural ways to enhance CEN function is key.

SUPPORTING THE CENTRAL EXECUTIVE NETWORK FOR BETTER MENTAL HEALTH

Knowing how important the CEN is, it’s critical to support it. Emerging research shows that there are ways to strengthen this brain network, which can help improve mental health:

  • Mindful Activities: Practices like mindfulness or meditation can train your brain to use the CEN more effectively. These activities help you learn to control your attention and manage distractions.

 

  • Regular Exercise: Physical activity is not just good for your body; it’s also great for your brain. Exercise can enhance the functioning of the CEN, making it easier to focus and solve problems.

 

  • Healthy Sleep Habits: Getting enough sleep is crucial for the CEN. A well-rested brain performs better, especially when it comes to tasks that require attention and executive control.

 

  • Problem-Solving Games: Engaging in activities that challenge your brain, like puzzles or strategy games, can also strengthen the CEN. These fun activities make you think critically and keep your decision-making skills sharp.

The Central Executive Network is like the brain’s command center, directing your attention and guiding your decision-making. By taking care of your CEN through healthy habits and mental exercises, you can improve not just your academic performance but also your overall mental health.

Understanding and supporting this brain network helps us navigate life’s challenges more effectively, making us better prepared to manage careers, schoolwork, and emotional ups and downs.

Depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

 Dr. Rishi Sood is Associate Medical Director of Amen Clinics Inc. and a child and adult psychiatrist.

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