Stress is usually looked at as a negative experience, one to be avoided at all costs.
However stress, in a limited measure, can trigger our brain to get better.
New research by Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley and post-doctoral fellow Elizabeth Kirby has found the biological systems by which the brain improves under acute stress[stress that is intense but short-lived].
The key observation was how new nerve cells developed in the brain because of stress and how the brain performed better after 2 weeks when the new nerve cells matured.
The research team subjected rats to acute stress by immobilising them in their cages for a few hours. Stress levels went up in them and this was noticed through the spike in stress hormone corticosterone. The team observed that the growth of some specific nerve cells in the brain doubled when the stress was applied. These stressed rats had to do memory tests which they performed very well two weeks after the stress but they did not do very well two days later. Using special cell identification techniques, they were able to confirm that the better performance was because the growth of the new cells activated by stress.
“In terms of survival, the nerve cell proliferation doesn’t help you immediately after the stress, because it takes time for the cells to become mature, functioning neurons,” Kaufer said. “But in the natural environment, where acute stress happens on a regular basis, it will keep the animal more alert, more attuned to the environment and to what actually is a threat or not a threat.”
Kaufer was also cautious to realise intense short-lived stress can sometimes can cause much problem if PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] develops. Further research may be required when stress is helpful and when it is harmful.
“I think the ultimate message is an optimistic one,” Kaufer concluded. “Stress can be something that makes you better, but it is a question of how much, how long and how you interpret or perceive it.”
This research was published in the new open access online journal eLife.
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