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Article by Portia Phelps

​​What in the world is the aMCC?

The anterior mid-cingulate cortex (aMCC) is gaining attention for its role in mental health, cognitive function, and possibly guarding against dementia.

What in the world is the aMCC?: Using Stress to Increase Resilience, Create a Happier Life, and Build a Better Brain

Have you heard of the aMCC? 

This little-known brain area has been receiving quite a bit of attention lately in both academia and popular science. Recent studies have shown that the anterior mid-cingulate cortex (aMCC) may play a large part in bolstering one’s mental health, cognitive function, and general life satisfaction, and may also protect against dementia and other age-related declines. And how can one develop this little-known but important brain structure? Through—drumroll, please—exercise!

Get some Grit

Are you able to push through obstacles and persist in the face of challenges, even in the absence of immediate reward? If so, you have grit! For many years, researchers have been examining the phenomenon of ‘grit’ and ‘perseverance’ and how these traits manifest and develop in our brains. There can be no doubt that tenacity (or ‘persistence’ or ‘perseverance’) is a highly-desirable trait and the links between tenacity and improved life outcomes and life satisfaction has been studied extensively. People who score higher in the area of tenacity tend to score higher in the “areas of health, academic achievement, and career success. And now, researchers are identifying the aMCC as playing an essential part in the development of these traits and overall brain health. 

Recent research demonstrates that people with highly-developed aMCCs tend to have better cognitive function as they age compared to their peers, exercise more regularly, have a healthier BMI, experience fewer symptoms of depression, and enjoy greater academic and career success—which all sound pretty good to me! 

A little bit of anatomy

So, how does the aMCC work? The aMCC sits in the centre of several important brain networks and, by its unique position, can “integrate signals related to interoception, allostasis, executive function, motor planning, and sensory integration”; its centralized position  “allows it to participate in the willed control of our behavior” and potentially more efficient energy regulation (Touroutoglou et al.). The aMCC is a fascinating and complex part of our brains, so if you’re interested in learning about its anatomy and functions, you can read more here.

A bigger and better aMCC

The aMCC has been hypothesized to be a highly flexible hub, responsive to behavioural training. Recent studies have shown that by exposing ourselves to small, intentional stressors throughout our daily living, we can grow and strengthen our aMCC. Aerobic exercise, when done at least 75% of your maximum heart rate, is especially effective in building this foundational brain area.  

This might seem counterintuitive to what we often hear about stress which is mainly that it should be avoided at all costs. This is where the science can get a little murky; according to many experts, stress that is chronic, relentless, and resistant to recovery (no matter what you do, or how much you try to rest, you just can’t seem to recover) should be avoided. On the other hand, stress that comes in ‘micro doses’, such as in the case of exercise or cold-exposure, or even performing a brief, disagreeable task, can help bolster your aMCC and, like building muscle, can build our capacity for grit, perseverance, and tenacity.  

Our thoughts about stress may also impact its effects on our body; so if you tell yourself that your experience of stress is good and productive and helping to create a stronger and more resilient brain, the negative impacts of a ‘stressful’ experience may be lessened. Bonus! 

Exercising for the aMCC 

While low- and mid-intensity exercise have many benefits, including improving our mental health and lessening our risk of heart disease, high-intensity exercise may be most effective in creating change in our aMCC and in our capacity for resilience and perseverance. As a disclaimer, we recommend that you speak to your physician before engaging in a new exercise program.

If it is safe to do so, we would recommend starting with just 15-30 seconds at a time of all-out effort and building up your capacity slowly over time. ‘All out’ effort, as well, is highly subjective. As you’re working out, you can use one of our favourite personal trainer tools: the Rate of Perceived Exertion. If you have a personal trainer (and we always recommend that you have one!), they can ask: ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, how hard am I working?’. If you’re in the 9 or 10 range, you’re in ‘all out’! This specific strategy can be used when doing cardio and aerobic exercise, such as HIIT or sprint training. 

When strength training, you can also target your aMCC by lifting just shy of the point of failure. I often recommend to my clients that the ‘last one to two reps should be 10/10’; again, you don’t have to do this every time you lift weights, and you also want to ensure that these last reps are ‘high quality’ (in other words, don’t injure yourself). The RPE is a useful marker for evaluating the intensity of your work. If you still have enough juice in your muscles for another rep or two, then you’re not hitting that point of all-out effort—so keep going!


Avoiding stress is not the answer to a more meaningful and higher-quality life. In fact, choosing our stressors and pushing our limits (safely, of course), may be the key to protecting our brain health, extending our lifespan, and improving our quality of life in general. Not every moment of our lives, however, needs to be a struggle. Research has demonstrated that recovery is an essential component of resilience; we also need to be able to relax to live healthy, happy, and meaningful lives, so don’t forget to take a load off! 

Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health! 

​​Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer.

Works Cited

Dong, Y., Li, Y., Xiang, X., Xiao, Z. C., Hu, J., Li, Y., … & Hu, H. (2023). Stress relief as a natural resilience mechanism against depression-like behaviors. Neuron, 111(23), 3789-3801.

He, R., Feng, J., Xun, Q., Qin, Q., & Hu, C. (2013). High-intensity training induces airway hyperresponsive through neuron transdifferentiation of adrenal medulla chromaffin cells.

Hird, E., Slanina-Davies, A., Lewis, G., Hamer, M., & Roiser, J. (2023). From movement to motivation: A proposed framework to understand the antidepressant effect of exercise.

Stanley J. Colcombe, Kirk I. Erickson, Paige E. Scalf, Jenny S. Kim, Ruchika Prakash, Edward McAuley, Steriani Elavsky, David X. Marquez, Liang Hu, Arthur F. Kramer, Aerobic Exercise Training Increases Brain Volume in Aging Humans, The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, Volume 61, Issue 11, November 2006, Pages 1166–1170,

Touroutoglou, A., Andreano, J., Dickerson, B. C., & Barrett, L. F. (2020). The tenacious brain: How the anterior mid-cingulate contributes to achieving goals. Cortex, 123, 12-29.