Where stress lives

 

Where stress lives

 

Researchers at Yale have discovered a neural home of the feeling of stress. This insight may help people to deal with the fear and anxiety that stress can cause. The research has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Brain scans of people exposed to stressful or troubling images, including a snarling dog, mutilated faces, or filthy toilets, have shown that there is a network of neural connections throughout the brain. It begins from the hippocampus, which helps to regulate emotion, memory, and motivation.

The way the brain supports physiological responses to stress have been studied for a long time in animals – activation of certain areas of the brain produce specific hormones when faced with stress and threats. However, the source of the subjective experience of stress has been more difficult to pinpoint.

"We can't ask rats how they are feeling," said Elizabeth Goldfarb, associate research scientist at the Yale Stress Center and lead author of the study.

Goldfarb and co-authors conducted several fMRI scans of participants who were asked to quantify their stress levels when shown a stressful or troubling image.

The results revealed that the previously mentioned neural connections reached not only the parts of the brain associated with physiological stress responses, but also the dorsal lateral front cortex – this area of the brain is involved in higher cognitive functions and emotion regulation. The team discovered that when the neural connections between the hippocampus and frontal cortex were stronger, the participants reported feeling less stressed by the images.

On the contrary, participants reported feeling increased stress levels when the neural network was more active.

The authors have noted that there is existing evidence from other studies that individuals suffering from mental health issues such as anxiety may have difficulty receiving calming feedback from the frontal cortex.

"These findings may help us tailor therapeutic intervention to multiple targets, such as increasing the strength of the connections from the hippocampus to the frontal cortex or decreasing the signaling to the physiological stress centers," said Sinha, a co-author on the study.

According to Sinha, all study subjects were healthy, and in some cases their responses appeared to be adaptive – meaning that the network connections became stronger as the participants were exposed to the images. Sinha and Goldfarb speculate that these participants may be accessing memories to help moderate their response to stressful images.

"Similar to recent findings that remembering positive experiences can lower the body's stress response, our work suggests that memory-related brain networks can be harnessed to create a more resilient emotional response to stress," Goldfarb said.

 

Elizabeth V. Goldfarb, Monica D. Rosenberg, Dongju Seo, R. Todd Constable, Rajita Sinha. Hippocampal seed connectome-based modeling predicts the feeling of stressNature Communications, 2020; 11 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-16492-2

 

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