How does our brain deal with stress?

Every April since 1992, the US celebrates Stress Awareness Month, a time during which health care professionals and other experts work together to increase public awareness of what stress is and how to deal with it. On this occasion, DiscovHER shares the exciting work of Dr. Elizabeth Gould, a neuroscientist based at Princeton University, whose research continues to illuminate our understanding of stress. Previously, she demonstrated the positive effects of exercise in relation to stress, and her recent research suggests that in troubled times, structural changes occur in the brain that impact our social behavior.

Many, if not all of us, have experienced stressful situations at some point in our lives. A sudden change in circumstances, such as job loss, or even just day-to-day turbulent situations, can lead to feelings of anxiety or fear. Stress also has an important physical component: think an increased heart rate, raised blood pressure and a sudden surge of energy. These symptoms are caused by the release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol in our bodies, which are designed to help us react swiftly – the so-called “fight or flight” response. While this is useful in helping us react in a potentially dangerous situation, in the long term, too much stress can lead to psychological problems, including anxiety and depression.

Much research has been conducted on how stress works and what we can do to deal with it. One of the leading contemporary voices in stress research is Dr. Elizabeth Gould, an American neuroscientist who is the Dorman T. Warren Professor of Psychology and department chair at Princeton. One of her key areas of research is neurogenesis, which is the production of new neurons in the brain. Whether or not our brain produces new neurons, which behave differently to more mature neurons, is suggested to be a key factor in how we cope in threatening situations. As it happens, our brains appear to be rather adaptive to stress.

In 2013, Dr. Gould conducted a study which showed that exercise helps reorganize the brain in a way that allows it to better cope with stress. Dr. Gould and her team compared how two groups of mice - one who exercised regularly in the last six weeks, and a sedentary group - reacted to a stressful event. The exercise group coped better than the sedentary group, because physical activity helped produce a large number of new neurons in the mice’s brains. While new neurons are typically more excitable than mature ones and tend to lead to increased stress responses, the study also found that exercise helps strengthen the brain functions that prevent these neurons from firing. Thanks to this research, we have solid evidence on the efficacy of exercise as a means to reduce stress.

In a more recent study, Dr. Gould found that stressful situations in and of themselves can lead to a decrease in the growth of new neurons. She found that rats that had been exposed to a stressful situation had fewer neurons at the end of a six-week period than rats that had not. Interestingly, this lack of neurogenesis was found to impact behavior, with the stressful rats showing a marked preference to familiar rats than new ones. Although this study was conducted on rats, experts suggest that it may illuminate something useful about human psychology: as withdrawal from social activities is a common aspect of depression, it may be that the decreased neurogenesis caused by stress is an important brain mechanism responsible for this mental disorder.

What do you think of Dr. Gould’s research on stress? Let us know @4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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