Some people are just genetically tougher. But you can train your brain to better handle stress.
As a psychiatrist, I’ve long wondered why some people get ill in the face of stress and adversity — either mentally or physically — while others rarely succumb.
Dr. Akil discovered that there are brain molecules that endow us with resilience.
For a paper published in 2011, she and colleagues studied the brains of depressed patients who died. They found that the most disrupted genes were those for growth factors, proteins that act like a kind of brain fertilizer.
This makes me worry about the current clinical trials of the latest new pain reliever they are trying to develop. It uses “anti-nerve growth factors” (anti-NGF) to reduce the levels of NGF, which are sometimes associated with pain.
We know, for example, that not everyone gets PTSD after exposure to extreme trauma, while some people get disabling depression with minimal or no stress.
Likewise, we know that chronic stress can contribute to physical conditions like heart disease and stroke in some people, while others emerge unscathed.
What makes people resilient, and is it something they are born with or can it be acquired later in life?
“We came to realize that depressed people have lost their power to remodel their brains. And that is in fact devastating because brain remodeling is something we need to do all the time — we are constantly rewiring our brains based on past experience and the expectation of how we need to use them in the future,” Dr. Akil said.
This is the job of “nerve growth factor”, to create new neurons and connections.
New research suggests that one possible answer can be found in the brain’s so-called central executive network, which helps regulate emotions, thinking and behavior.
In a study published last month, Gregory Miller, a psychologist at Northwestern University, and colleagues there and elsewhere used M.R.I. to study the brains of a racially diverse group of 218 people, ages 12 to 14, living in violent neighborhoods in Chicago.
They reported that the youths who had higher levels of functional connectivity in the central executive network had better cardiac and metabolic health than their peers with lower levels of connectivity.
Once again, it seems resilience is related to brain connectivity.
Dr. Akil and colleagues at the Pritzker Neuropsychiatric Disorders Research Consortium found that one growth factor that is depleted in depressed brains, called fibroblast growth factor 2, also plays a role in resilience.
When they gave it to stressed animals, they bounced back faster and acted less depressed. And when they gave it just once after birth to animals that had been bred for high levels of anxiety and inhibition, they were hardier for the rest of their lives.
What Dr. Miller and his colleagues discovered was that when neighborhood homicide rates went up, the young people’s cardiometabolic risk — as measured by obesity, blood-pressure and insulin levels, among other variables — also increased, but only in youths who showed lower activity in this brain network.
Another growth factor, BDNF, promotes neurogenesis in animals and may enhance resilience in humans.
This is another example of how critical these “nerve growth factors” are.
It makes me wonder even more about some of the latest work on a non-opioid molecule that relieves pain, in which they are pursuing an anti-nerve growth factor compound as a solution.
I’m willing to wager that there will be countless side effects and, because the medication alters the balance of deep biological processes, these side effects may vary so widely between patients that it will take decades and generations (who may inherit some traces of this intervention) to solve the puzzle of these “unintended and unforgettable” consequences of disturbing the delicate chemical balance of our brain.
One plausible explanation is that greater activity in this network increases self-control, which most likely reduces some unhealthy behaviors people often use to cope with stress, like eating junk food or smoking
What’s curious is that the more medically hardy young people were no less anxious or depressed than their less fortunate peers, which suggests that while being more resilient makes you less vulnerable to adversity, it doesn’t guarantee happiness — or even an awareness of being resilient.
Of course, this is an observational study, so it cannot prove that the correlation between brain connectivity and health is causal
Still, there is good reason to believe the link may be causal because other studies have found that we can change the activity in the self-control network, and increase healthy behaviors, with simple behavioral interventions.
For example, mindfulness training, which involves attention control, emotion regulation and increased self-awareness, can increase connectivity within this network and help people to quit smoking.
Clearly self-control is one critical component of resilience that can be easily fostered. But there are others
Perhaps someday we might be able to protect young people exposed to violence and adversity by supplementing them with neuroprotective growth factors.
Some people have won the genetic sweepstakes and are naturally tough.
Not me :-(
But there is plenty the rest of us can do to be more resilient and healthier.
By Richard A. Friedman
Dr. Friedman is a psychiatrist and a contributing opinion writer.