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The Neurobiology of Stress: The Stress Response Explained

(Editor’s note: below you have part 4 of the 6-part The Neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy of Stress series. If you are join­ing the series now, you can read the pre­vi­ous part Here.)

Stayin’  Alive

Under­stand­ing the Human Brain and How It Responds to Stress

THE STRESS RESPONSE EXPLAINED

Stress was put on the map, so to speak, by a Hun­gar­i­an — born Cana­di­an endocri­nol­o­gist named Hans Hugo Bruno Selye (ZEL — yeh) in 1950, when he pre­sent­ed his research on rats at the annu­al con­ven­tion of the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion. To explain the impact of stress, Selye pro­posed some­thing he called the Gen­er­al Adap­ta­tion Syn­drome (GAS), which he said had three com­po­nents. Accord­ing to Selye, when an organ­ism expe­ri­ences some nov­el or threat­en­ing stim­u­lus it responds with an alarm reac­tion. This is fol­lowed by what Selye referred to as the recov­ery or resis­tance stage, a peri­od of time dur­ing which the brain repairs itself and stores the ener­gy it will need to deal with the next stress­ful event.

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Neuroplasticity at work: Can the pill change women’s brains?

Read this recent Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can arti­cle show­ing clear­ly how the brain can change based on our dai­ly expe­ri­ences and actions:

… a new study in the jour­nal Brain Research demon­strates that […] birth con­trol pills have struc­tur­al effects on regions of the brain that gov­ern high­er-order cog­ni­tive activ­i­ties

… Where­as the sub­tle struc­tur­al effects of nat­u­ral­ly-occur­ring steroid hor­mones and sex dif­fer­ences in the brain have been exten­sive­ly stud­ied, few stud­ies have exam­ined the role of syn­thet­ic hor­mones on changes in the human brain.  What hap­pens, then, when the female brain gets a sig­nif­i­cant and arti­fi­cial dose of steroid hor­mone, either prog­es­terone, estro­gen or both? […] It appears that the brain, that sen­si­tive organ replete with steroid recep­tors, reacts to its hor­mon­al milieu with star­tling struc­tur­al mod­i­fi­ca­tions.

Com­ments: The study com­pared the brains of men, women cycling nat­u­ral­ly and women tak­ing the pill. Struc­tur­al dif­fer­ences in spe­cif­ic areas were found a) between men’s and women’s brains, b) between the brains of women cycling nat­u­ral­ly when observed at dif­fer­ent moments of their cycle, and c) between the brains of women cycling nat­u­ral­ly and those of women tak­ing the pill. Over­all the study points out that hor­mones can affect brain struc­tures via neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, the abil­i­ty of the brain to change. Since no cog­ni­tive mea­sures were used it is not pos­si­ble to know whether any of these struc­tur­al changes  alter our per­for­mance at all. There is no evi­dence so far as to whether these struc­tur­al chances are bad or good.


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