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Brain Circuits that Help People Cope with Stress


People encounter stressful situations and stimuli everywhere, every day, and studies have shown that long-term stress can contribute to a broad array of health problems. However, some people cope with stress better than others, and scientists have long wondered why.


According to a study published online (19 July 2016) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, brain patterns in humans have been identified that appear to underlie “resilient coping.“ Resilient coping encompasses the healthy emotional and behavioral responses to stress that help some people handle stressful situations better than others.


In a study of human volunteers, the authors used a brain scanning technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure localized changes in brain activation during stress. Study participants were given fMRI scans while exposed to highly threatening, violent and stressful images followed by neutral, non-stressful images for six minutes each. While conducting the scans, the authors also measured non-brain indicators of stress among study participants, such as heart rate, and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in blood.


The brain scans revealed a sequence of three distinct patterns of response to stress, compared to non-stress exposure. The first pattern was characterized by sustained activation of brain regions known to signal, monitor and process potential threats. The second response pattern involved increased activation, and then decreased activation, of a circuit connecting brain areas involved in stress reaction and adaptation, perhaps as a means of reducing the initial distress to a perceived threat. The third pattern helped predict those who would regain emotional and behavioral control to stress. This pattern involved what the authors described as “neuroflexibility,“ in a circuit between the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex and forebrain regions including the ventral striatum, extended amygdala, and hippocampus during sustained stress exposure. The authors explained that this neuroflexibility was characterized by initially decreased activation of this circuit in response to stress, followed by its increased activation with sustained stress exposure. The authors noted that previous research has consistently shown that repeated and chronic stress damages the structure, connections, and functions of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the seat of higher order functions such as language, social behavior, mood, and attention, and which also helps regulate emotions, and more primitive areas of the brain.


In the current study, the authors reported that participants who did not show the neuroflexibility response in the prefrontal cortex during stress had higher levels of self-reported binge drinking, anger outbursts, and other maladaptive coping behaviors. They hypothesize that such individuals might be at increased risk for alcohol use disorder or emotional dysfunction problems, which are hallmarks of chronic exposure to high levels of stress.



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