Differences in brain activity could predict responses to stress

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A new study shows that the more a person’s brain can amplify neuroactivity during times of stress, the more resilient that person may be when trying to cope with trauma.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Study authors compared fMRI scans showing brain activity in participants who were presented with violent, stressful or traumatic images with brain fMRIs of participants who viewed neutral images.

They found that during times of high stress, the brain showed more activity in areas related to adaptation and behavior control. Activity slowed down in other parts of the brain before eventually ramping up again. This response, researchers said, showed the way the brain deals with stress and how it uses the stimulus to make decisions and modify behavior going forward.

Differences in these stress responses were also a predictor of a person who might take on unhelpful coping mechanisms during times of stress. People with higher levels of “active” coping showed increased neural flexibility signals in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VmPFC), while individuals who might be more likely to adopt maladaptive coping strategies (such alcohol consumption and arguments) showed lower VmPFC activity.

Researchers examined the brains of 30 healthy participants with a median age of about 26 while they underwent quick and more long-term stress stimulators.

The ultimate takeaway from the findings, the researchers said, is that neuroplasticity is directly related to resiliency when it comes to the brain’s stress response.

“These findings demonstrate acute functional neuroplasticity during stress, with distinct and separable brain networks that underlie critical components of the stress response, and a specific role for VmPFC neuroflexibility in stress-resilient coping,” the authors wrote.