Brain Learns to Manage Stress Early in Life
by Rick Nauert PhD Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on April 8, 2013
Provocative new animal research suggests that the ability to manage stress is not genetically hardwired into our brain. Rather the brain learns from early experiences and develops pathways that prepare the brain for future challenges.
Using a number of cutting-edge approaches, including optogenetics, researchers at Canada’s University of Calgary discovered that stress circuits in the brain undergo profound learning early in life.
Stress circuits consist of the interaction between the nervous system and stress hormones—specifically, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
In the study, Jaideep Bains, Ph.D., and colleagues learned that stress circuits are capable of self-tuning following a single stress.
These findings demonstrate that the brain uses stress experience during early life to prepare and optimize for subsequent challenges.
The team was able to show the existence of unique time windows following brief stress challenges during which learning is either increased or decreased. By manipulating specific cellular pathways, they uncovered the key players responsible for learning in stress circuits in an animal model.
The findings are discussed in two studies published online in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
“These new findings demonstrate that systems thought to be ‘hard-wired’ in the brain, are in fact flexible, particularly early in life,” says Bains.
“Using this information, researchers can now ask questions about the precise cellular and molecular links between early life stress and stress vulnerability or resilience later in life.”
Stress vulnerability, or increased sensitivity to stress, has been implicated in numerous health conditions including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and depression.
Although these studies used animal models, similar mechanisms mediate disease progression in humans.
“Our observations provide an important foundation for designing more effective preventative and therapeutic strategies that mitigate the effects of stress and meet society’s health challenges,” he says.
[This is in accordance with Taddio et al.'s finding that circumcised babies react differently to the stress of vaccination, months later.]