Stress in the Brain Heads to the Body

Staff writer Sara G. Miller with Live Science explains in an article how stress in our brains could lead to stress in our bodies.  Our brains have patterns that may predict how our body physically reacts to stressful situations, according to a new study.

Some people have stronger physical reactions to stress than others and their hearts beat faster and their blood pressure rises more.  This exaggerated or increased stress response can have negative consequences.

When the blood pressure shoots up in stressful situations you are more likely to develop high blood pressure in the future and may also have an increased risk of death from heart disease, according to the study that was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.  Those who show the largest stress-related cardiovascular response are those who are at the greatest risk for poor cardiovascular health, and understanding the brain mechanisms for it may help to reduce the risk, says senior study author Peter Gianaros, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Researchers performed brain scans on more than 300 adults while monitoring their physical responses, such as blood pressure and heart rate.  They were asked to complete mental tests that were designed to create a stressful experience and had to answer questions under strict time constraints.

They used artificial intelligence to analyze the results and found those who reacted more strongly to stress physically showed specific patterns of activity in their brains.  This predicted how a person’s blood pressure and heart rate would change based on the person’s brain activity during the stress test.

Activity in certain areas of the brain was also linked to greater stress responses in the body.  There was heightened activity in areas of the brain that determined whether information from the world around you is threatening and linked to a greater physical response.

The study didn’t prove increased activity in certain parts of the brain in response to stress causing physical changes in the body but found an association between the two.  Gianaros noted that there is more research needed in order to explore the connections between the brain activity and stress responses in the body.

This work is proof-of-concept and does suggest that brain imaging might be a useful tool to identify people who are at risk for heart disease or more or less suited for different kinds of interventions in the future.  These interventions might be aimed at reducing levels of stress.

Dr Fredda Branyon