Neuroanatomy of stress

Neuroanatomy of stressNeuroanatomy of stress

It’s been a stressful year. With many countries grappling with thorny social and political issues, compounded upon by a global pandemic, it’s no surprise that so many of us are feeling strained. The American Psychological Association has declared stress to be a national mental health crisis, reporting that many Americans experienced unwanted weight changes, sleep disruptions, or other signs of worsening stress since the start of the pandemic.

Beyond its effects on mental health, stress can also have a strong impact on our biology. In this article, we’ll talk about what stress really means in a biological sense, with a particular focus on its effects on the brain.

Key takeaways

  • Stress is an emotion that evolved from our flight-or-fight response. It is a way the body responds to dangerous situations. 
  • The nervous system is the key regulator of stress. It is the one responsible for controlling involuntary processes, such as your heart beating. 
  • When you are in a stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system gets almost immediately activated to help you manage the emotion. Consequently, it leads to hormonal changes, such as the release of cortisol. 
  • Chronic stress is known to harm brain function, which may result in impaired cognitive function

What is stress exactly?

The world of stress hormones

Your brain on stress

The hypothalamus and pituitary gland aren’t the only brain regions involved in stress. Once cortisol is released into the bloodstream, it can have widespread impacts on the rest of the brain. The hippocampus, a brain region best known for its role in memory, is particularly sensitive to cortisol. Studies have found that stress causes fewer neurons to be born in the hippocampus, and it can also alter the structure of neuronal connections. As a result, chronic stress can cause the hippocampus to become smaller over time, with some studies suggesting that memory formation can become impaired as well.
Another important brain region is the prefrontal cortex, which is important for advanced brain functions like long-term planning, impulse control, and social behavior. Chronic stress can alter neuronal connections in the prefrontal cortex and lead to gradual atrophy of this region. In contrast, another brain region called the amygdala appears to become larger with repeated stress. The amygdala is important for processing negative emotions, particularly fear and anger. A hyperactivate amygdala may contribute to anxiety or aggressive behavior.

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