News | Neuro Imaging | July 22, 2016

Researchers Identify Brain Circuits that Help People Cope with Stress

Subjects who responded better to stress demonstrated improved “neuroflexibility” of affected brain regions

fMRI, brain circuits, stress response, Yale study, PNAS

July 22, 2016 — Research supported by the National Institutes of Health has identified brain patterns in humans that appear to underlie “resilient coping,” the healthy emotional and behavioral responses to stress that help some people handle stressful situations better than others.

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. The new study, by a team of researchers at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, is now online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This important finding points to specific brain adaptations that predict resilient responses to stress,” said George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of NIH and a supporter of the study. “The findings also indicate that we might be able to predict maladaptive stress responses that contribute to excessive drinking, anger and other unhealthy reactions to stress.”

In a study of human volunteers, scientists led by Rajita Sinha, Ph.D., and Dongju Seo, Ph.D., 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, researchers 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,” said Sinha, professor of psychiatry and director of the Yale Stress Center.

This pattern involved what Sinha and colleagues 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. Sinha and her colleagues explain 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.

“This seems to be the area of the brain which mobilizes to regain control over our response to stress,” said Sinha.

The authors note 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 researchers 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.

In addition to NIAAA, the study was supported by the NIH Common Fund, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

For more information: www.pnas.org

Related Content

Novel Technique May Significantly Reduce Breast Biopsies
News | Breast Biopsy Systems | January 17, 2019
A novel technique that uses mammography to determine the biological tissue composition of a tumor could help reduce...
Digital Mammography Increases Breast Cancer Detection
News | Mammography | January 16, 2019
The shift from film to digital mammography increased the detection of breast cancer by 14 percent overall in the United...
Artificial Intelligence Used in Clinical Practice to Measure Breast Density
News | Artificial Intelligence | January 15, 2019
An artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm measures breast density at the level of an experienced mammographer,...
Machine Learning Uncovers New Insights Into Human Brain Through fMRI
News | Neuro Imaging | January 11, 2019
An interdisciplinary research team led by scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) has successfully...
Mobile App Data Collection Shows Promise for Population Health Surveys
News | Population Health | January 10, 2019
Mobile app data collection can bring access to more potential clinical study participants, reduce clinical study...
Hypertension With Progressive Cerebral Small Vessel Disease Increases Cognitive Impairment Risk
News | Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) | January 08, 2019
Patients with high blood pressure and progression of periventricular white matter hyperintensities showed signs of...
Artificial Intelligence Pinpoints Nine Different Abnormalities in Head Scans

A brain scan (left) showing an intraparenchymal hemorrhage in left frontal region and a scan (right) of a subarachnoid hemorrhage in the left parietal region. Both conditions were accurately detected by the Qure.ai tool. Image courtesy of Nature Medicine.

News | Artificial Intelligence | January 07, 2019
The rise in the use of computed tomography (CT) scans in U.S. emergency rooms has been a well-documented trend1 in...
Electronic Brachytherapy Effective in Long-Term Study of 1,000 Early-Stage Breast Cancers
News | Brachytherapy Systems, Women's Healthcare | January 07, 2019
Breast cancer recurrence rates of patients treated with intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) using the Xoft Axxent...
Brachytherapy Alone Superior Treatment for Intermediate-Risk Prostate Cancer
News | Brachytherapy Systems | January 04, 2019
Patient-reported outcomes (PROs) indicated a significantly different clinician and patient-reported late toxicity...
Breast Cancer Patients Have Less Heart Damage With Heart Drug and Trastuzumab
News | Cardio-oncology | January 03, 2019
Breast cancer patients who take a heart drug at the same time as trastuzumab have less heart damage, according to a...