Summary: A new study reports flexible brain activity in a particular area of the brain may predict resilience.
Why some people handle stress better than others is a question that has fascinated scientists for decades. Now a Yale-led team reports that flexible brain activity in a particular area of the brain may predict resilience. Conversely, its absence can help pinpoint those most at risk for binge drinking, emotional eating, and angry outbursts, according to a study published the week of July 18 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Thirty research participants were given fMRI scans while exposed to either highly threatening, violent, and stressful images and to neutral, non-stressful images for six minutes each. The scientists found three distinct patterns of response to stress.
The first pattern was characterized by sustained neural activation of brain regions that signal, monitor, and process potential threats. The second response pattern involved a dynamic pattern with increased and then decreased activation, perhaps as the brain’s way of reducing initial distress to a perceived threat. Finally, subjects showed flexible neural responses in an area of the brain called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (VmPFC) during sustained stress exposure.
“Higher levels of neuroflexibility in this area of the brain helped predict those who would regain emotional and behavioral control during stress,” said Rajita Sinha, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry, director of the Yale Stress Center and lead author of the study. “The VmPFC seems to be the area of the brain which mobilizes to regain control over our response to stress.”
Prior studies have shown consistently that repeated and chronic stress causes great damage to neural structures, connections, and functions of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of higher order cognition that helps regulate emotions, and more primitive areas of the brain.
In subsequent interviews with the participants, the researchers found that those who did not show neural flexibility in the VmPFC during stress were more prone to binge drinking, episodes of emotional eating, and anger outbursts. Those subjects might be at higher risk of alcohol abuse and addiction or emotional dysfunction problems, which are hallmarks of exposure to repeated and high levels of chronic stress, Sinha hypothesized.
Funding: Cheryl Lacadie and Todd Constable are co-authors of the study, which was funded by the National Institute of Health Common Fund Roadmap and the National Institutes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute of Drug Abuse, and the National Institutes of Digestive Diseases and Kidney.
Source: Bill Hathaway – Yale
Image Source: This NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the Yale press release.
Original Research: Abstract for “Dynamic neural activity during stress signals resilient coping” by Rajita Sinha, Cheryl M. Lacadie, R. Todd Constable, and Dongju Seo in PNAS. Published online July 18 2016 doi:10.1073/pnas.1600965113
[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Yale. “Pinpointing the Neural Center of Resilience.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 19 July 2016.
<https://neurosciencenews.com/vmpfc-resilience-neuroscience-4697/>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Yale. (2016, July 19). Pinpointing the Neural Center of Resilience. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved July 19, 2016 from https://neurosciencenews.com/vmpfc-resilience-neuroscience-4697/[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Yale. “Pinpointing the Neural Center of Resilience.” https://neurosciencenews.com/vmpfc-resilience-neuroscience-4697/ (accessed July 19, 2016).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]
Dynamic neural activity during stress signals resilient coping
Active coping underlies a healthy stress response, but neural processes supporting such resilient coping are not well-known. Using a brief, sustained exposure paradigm contrasting highly stressful, threatening, and violent stimuli versus nonaversive neutral visual stimuli in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, we show significant subjective, physiologic, and endocrine increases and temporally related dynamically distinct patterns of neural activation in brain circuits underlying the stress response. First, stress-specific sustained increases in the amygdala, striatum, hypothalamus, midbrain, right insula, and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) regions supported the stress processing and reactivity circuit. Second, dynamic neural activation during stress versus neutral runs, showing early increases followed by later reduced activation in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), left DLPFC, hippocampus, and left insula, suggested a stress adaptation response network. Finally, dynamic stress-specific mobilization of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VmPFC), marked by initial hypoactivity followed by increased VmPFC activation, pointed to the VmPFC as a key locus of the emotional and behavioral control network. Consistent with this finding, greater neural flexibility signals in the VmPFC during stress correlated with active coping ratings whereas lower dynamic activity in the VmPFC also predicted a higher level of maladaptive coping behaviors in real life, including binge alcohol intake, emotional eating, and frequency of arguments and fights. These findings demonstrate acute functional neuroplasticity during stress, with distinct and separable brain networks that underlie critical components of the stress response, and a specific role for VmPFC neuroflexibility in stress-resilient coping.
“Dynamic neural activity during stress signals resilient coping” by Rajita Sinha, Cheryl M. Lacadie, R. Todd Constable, and Dongju Seo in PNAS. Published online July 18 2016 doi:10.1073/pnas.1600965113