The brain region that can predict stress resilience

Wednesday, 21 April, 2021

The brain region that can predict stress resilience

Neuroeconomists, psychologists and physicians at the University of Zurich (UZH) have shown that increased sensitivity in a specific region of the brain contributes to the development of anxiety and depression in response to real-life stress, thus establishing an objective neurobiological measure for stress resilience in humans.

Some people don’t seem to be too bothered when it comes to handling stress. For others, however, exposure to stress can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression. While stress resilience is a widely discussed concept, it is still very challenging to predict people’s individual response to increased levels of stress. Lab experiments can only go so far in replicating the chronic stress many people experience in their day-to-day lives, as stress simulated in the lab is always limited in exposure time and intensity.

It is possible, however, to observe groups of vulnerable individuals, such as medical students who are all about to face real-life stress for an extended period — during their six-month internship in the emergency room they face acute as well as chronic stress. This is the real-life situation on which a team of researchers involving Marcus Grüschow, Christian Ruff and Birgit Kleim from the Zurich Center for Neuroeconomics and Department of Psychology based their study, the results of which were published in the journal Nature Communications.

“We are all equipped with the same basic stress response system, which has evolved over many years,” said Grüschow. “The key question is whether and how some individuals use this system more effectively than others.”

Before starting their internship, participants were given a task that required them to process conflicting emotional information. This conflict task activates the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine (LC-NE) system, a region of the brain associated with regulating our response to stress and resolving conflict. However, the intensity — often referred to as the ‘firing rate’ — of LC-NE activation varies from one person to the next. According to Grüschow, participants with a higher LC-NE responsivity showed more symptoms of anxiety and depression following their emergency room internships.

“The more responsive the LC-NE system, the more likely a person will develop symptoms of anxiety and depression when they’re exposed to stress,” he said.

The scientists have thus identified an objective neurobiological measure that can predict a person’s stress response, with the study demonstrating that in humans, differences in LC-NE responsivity can be used as an indicator for stress resilience.

“Having an objective measure of a person’s ability to cope with stress can be very helpful, for example when it comes to choosing a profession,” Kleim said. “Or it could be applied in stress resilience training with neurofeedback.”

“There might be an even more accessible indicator for stress resilience,” added Ruff, with research in animals suggesting that stimulation of the LC-NE system correlates with pupil dilation.

“If we could establish the same causal link between pupil dilation and the LC-NE system in humans, it would open up another avenue.”

Image credit: © Popov

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