A new study by scientists at Yale University offers new insights into how our brains produce acute subjective stress,media New Atlas reported. The imaging study shows exactly which neural network appears to activate stress sensations, suggesting the possibility of future therapeutic interventions that could moderate specific brain activity in patients with mental health disorders.
Over the past few decades, a large number of studies have explored the physiological mechanisms that support stress responses. We have a great understanding of how organisms react physiologically to stress and how our brains produce these reactions. But little is known about how our brains produce subjective feelings about stress. Previous studies have carried out in-depth studies of the hippocampus as a key brain region in mood regulation. The new study from Yale University aims to understand how the hippocampus contributes to our subjective perception of stress.
To study the problem, the scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how the hippocampus communicates with other brain regions when exposed to acute stress. Some human subjects were scanned while they watched a series of images. Images alternately appear in a collection of tense and threatening images, such as dirty toilets or violent dogs, and neutral or relaxing images such as pictures of nature. Throughout the process, all subjects also rated the subjective stress when viewing the images.
Interestingly, the study found that the more subjective stress the subjects felt, the more active the neural connections between the hippocampus and the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the brain region responsible for releasing glucocorticoids, a hormone that plays a role in physiological stress responses. However, the researchers also found that when subjects reported less stress, they had higher levels of activity between the hippocampus and the frontal frontal cortex when viewing particularly threatening images. The researchers were eventually able to effectively predict the subjects’ subjective stress sensations when they were able to measure the acute hippocampus connection to these other brain regions.
The significance of this discovery is compelling. Rajita Sinha, senior author of the study, said future studies could look at how to regulate neural connectivity to help those who transduction by altering signals in the hippocampus. “These findings may help us target targeted therapeutic interventions, such as increasing the intensity of connections from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex, or reducing signal transduction to a physiological stress center,” Sinha said.
Elizabeth Goldfarb, lead author of the study, said this could be a memory-recall process that helps individuals relieve acute sensations of stress. To put it another way, in the face of extremely tense imagery, the hippocampus provides some kind of memory-recall process to the prefrontal cortex to help regulate subjective stress responses.
“Similar to recent studies showing that remembering positive experiences can reduce stress responses in the body, our work shows that memory-related brain networks can be used to create more resilient emotional responses to stress,” Goldfarb said.
The new study was published in the journal Nature Communications.