Lab Canada

Exposure to stress puts brain on high alert

Calgary, AB – A Faculty of Medicine from the University of Calgary team, including Dr Jaideep Bains, an associate professor in the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and post-doctoral fellow Dr Brent Kuzmiski, is publishing an article in the October issue of Nature Neuroscience. Following up on findings in which the team identified the specific mechanism in the brain that switches on the stress command centre, the researchers have now shown, in rats, a mechanism that primes the cells to be on “standby” for any new stresses.

“If you are consistently exposed to stress at work or in your personal life, your brain stays stuck in hyper-vigilant mode,” says Dr Bains. “Understanding stress at the level of the brain cells is vital, because stress is a complex chain reaction. Currently, there are very few treatments for stress, and many of the ones currently available target symptoms often associated with stress – depression, fatigue, and memory loss.”

The team has discovered that stress signals arriving in the brain leave a molecular imprint on the brain cells that lasts for about a week. Those imprinted cells then respond more strongly to stress-relevant signals from the brain.

“It is essential that our brain is able to respond quickly to stress, release hormones, and activate the fight-or-flight response – this is a fundamental survival mechanism,” he says. “In today’s world of conflicting priorities, we may need to protect the brain against overreacting to chronic stress. Building on these findings, we could potentially uncover new therapeutic targets to soothe the brain’s stress centre by turning off the tap to the stress reaction.”

For the first time, these scientists were able to introduce an antidote prior to the stress signals being received by the cells – thereby neutralizing the overreaction of the brain’s stress command centre to incoming stress signals.