How stress shapes our brains
A University of Portsmouth researcher is building new connections between the wellbeing of our minds and the health of our bodies.
Professor Jerome Swinny's studies show that stress and traumatic life events shape the physical processes of our nervous systems.
These findings could have far-reaching impacts on treatment for common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. It also raises compelling new questions for how neurodegenerative diseases might also be traced back to events early in the life of a developing brain.
A stress pandemic in modern medicine
The Neurochemical Anatomy and Psychopharmacology research group Professor Swinny heads up covers a broad range of research here at Portsmouth.
Looking at the vast amount of resources devoted to treating stress and the resulting physical symptoms of stress, he realised that a deeper understanding of its physical pathways in our bodies might be the answer to preventing many life-limiting conditions – and taking the strain off medical services too.
His particular interest is in the role of our nervous systems in joining up our bodies with our thoughts, feelings and reactions to external events – whether it's a nervous tummy, anxiety or even panic symptoms.
There are certain biological processes that help us to deal with this ever-changing environment. And this is essentially the stress response within our body. So the nervous system is the overall regulator of the stress response.
Professor Swinny observed the diverse ways in which different people seemed to handle different levels of stress and was curious about how experiences early in our lives in can impact how our neurophysiology behaves thereafter.
I think when it comes to the mind, it is so individual, the way you think, the way you see the world and if the way you see it is in a way that could be challenging to you, what arises is a very unique disease.
Mental illnesses have physical constructs
Gone are the days of 'it's all in your head'. By studying different areas of the brain, Professor Swinny observed that they do not work in isolation of the emotional state. He explained how the cerebellum – a part of our brain primarily involved in coordination of motor function – had high levels of a hormone involved in regulating our stress response, meaning that poor coordination can effectively be associated with stress to keep us out of harm's way. Handy for when you're learning to ride a bike or operate heavy machinery, amongst other things!
So nerves and hormones carry the chemical messages from our brains around our body, but as Professor Swinny observed, the effectiveness of this is down to the number of synapses we have. In individuals who have suffered from acute stress, it's been shown that neurones can shrink and die, reducing the number of messages and presenting as symptoms such as poor memory and perhaps impaired ability to deal with life's challenges.
The team are now turning their attention to how this theory might be used to treat the neurophysiology of depression alongside talking and conventional therapies.
Listen to the Life Solved podcast
Professor Swinny talks about this innovative work in more detail in the Life Solved podcast episode that launched Tuesday 1st December.
Search for 'Life Solved' on any app or online to listen.