Stress Found to Alter the brains of Others, Similar to One’s Own

Scientists discovered that stress transmitted by others has the potential to alter the brain in the same way the brain is affected by one’s own stress, according to a new study published on March 8, 2018.

Jaideep Bains, a scientist and his team, at the Cumming School of Medicine’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), University of Calgary, conducted an experiment on mice to understand the brain under stress. They found that after social interaction, female mice underwent reverse effects of stress on their brains, while it did not hold true for their male counterparts.

Bains said, “Brain changes associated with stress underpin many mental illnesses, including PTSD, anxiety disorders, and depression. Recent studies indicate that stress and emotions can be ‘contagious’. Whether this has lasting consequences for the brain is not known.”

The team used pairs of mice for the study and exposed a mouse from each pair to mild stress, further returning it to its partner.  Responses of the stress on a specific population of cells, particularly CRH neurons were then examined. CRH neurons are responsible for controlling the brain’s response to stress. On examining each mouse, it was found that networks in the brains of the one exposed to stress and the naive partner, underwent similar changes.

Toni-Lee Sterley, lead author of the study said, “What was remarkable was that CRH neurons from the partners, who were not themselves exposed to an actual stress, showed changes that were identical to those we measured in the stressed mice.”

The team used optogenetic approaches and drew to the conclusion that when CRH neurons are activated, they release chemical signals, an ‘alarm pheromone’, from the mouse that alerts the partner. This partner who detects the signal, further could alert other members in the group. This transmission of stress signals is a key mechanism responsible for the transmission of information in social networks of various species.

Further research found evidence for buffering stress, however, this was very selective. They observed that after female mice spent time with stressed partners, the stress was buffered by half. This, however, was not the case in male mice.

Bains said that, “As humans, we readily communicate our stress to others, sometimes without even knowing it. There is even evidence that some symptoms of stress can persist in family and loved ones of individuals who suffer from PTSD. On the flip side, the ability to sense another’s emotional state is a key part of creating and building social bonds.” Thus, the research strikes a link between stress and social interaction.

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