APR 19, 2018 05:53 AM PDT

Do Stressful Events Change The Brain?

Anytime a person is experiencing a difficult time in their lives, such as a divorce, financial difficulties or a death, the stress that goes along with those events can accelerate the aging process.

Research from a team at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine suggests that this acceleration is seen clearly in the brains of older men who had gone through what are called "negative fateful life events" or FLEs.

The team looked at brain scans from 359 men aged 57 to 66 years old. The men were already enrolled in the Vietnam Era Twin Study of Aging (VETSA) The scientists at UCSDSM had the men report stressful life events such as death, divorce or bankruptcy in two specific time periods: the two most recent years and the first two years of the past seven years. While other lifestyle factors are known to cause stress and brain changes, including alcohol use, smoking, cardiovascular health and ethnicity, the researchers controlled for these factors and were able to observe changes in the brain related to negative FLEs that the men had experienced.

Looking at MRI scans, it's possible for neuroscientists to predict the chronological ages of the patients based on what they see in the brain. Specifically, there are physiological features of the brain that change as we age. Cortical thickness is a relatively accurate predictor of age. As we get older, the brain tissue in the cerebral cortex thins out. This outer layer of the brain is associated with memory and cognition. By looking at these factors, the researchers came up with a "predicted brain age difference" (PBAD).

Among the study participants who had experienced just one traumatic life event, there was a PBAD of .37 years, or approximately four months older than the patient's chronological age. Men that had experienced more than one FLE, there were more changes and more signs of aging in the brain anatomy. The measurements of thickness and volume in the brain were analyzed with software that could crunch the numbers and estimate brain age vs. chronological age.

Sean Hatton, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral scholar at UC San Diego School of Medicine and the study's first author. He explained, "Having more midlife FLEs, particularly relating to divorce/separation or a family death, was associated with advanced predicted brain aging."

It's well known from dozens of research studies that experiencing chronic stress, or even just an isolated stressful event is strongly correlated with "biological weathering" as well as mitochondrial and oxidative stress, immune suppression and genetic changes. It would seem expected that the brain, which processes events and emotion, would be affected.

There were some limits to the study that the authors were quick to acknowledge. All of the participants were men in a narrow age range, and most were white. The team plans to move forward and expand the research to see if similar changes are seen in women or men of other age groups and ethnicities. Take a look at the video below to learn more about this research.

Sources: UC San Diego School of Medicine Neurobiology of Aging, UC San Diego Center for Health Aging

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
You May Also Like
AUG 06, 2018
Videos
AUG 06, 2018
Could You Be a Memory Champion?
Memorization is a useful tool to learn information that is straightforward and objective. School children memorize the multiplication tables, the alphabet,...
SEP 10, 2018
Videos
SEP 10, 2018
Is The Human Brain Programmable?
The brain is often referred to as a computer. Researchers have tried for years to make artificial intelligence as fast and efficient as the human brain, bu...
SEP 11, 2018
Videos
SEP 11, 2018
Are you sleeping right? The sleep stages explained
Are you having trouble sleeping? Well, you're not alone. The number of people affected by sleep problems such as sleep apnea or insomnia is startling h...
OCT 01, 2018
Neuroscience
OCT 01, 2018
What is Lewy Body Dementia?
Dementia is a scary diagnosis, but what many people don't realize is that dementia is a general term that can refer to age-related cognitive decline or...
OCT 08, 2018
Neuroscience
OCT 08, 2018
Esports Curriculum to Study the Brain and Gaming
In the field of neuroscience, there is a lot of research on the effects video games have on the brain. Video game addiction has been declared a medical dis...
OCT 14, 2018
Genetics & Genomics
OCT 14, 2018
A Gene That can Make Light Touch Feel Painful
Anyone that has had a sunburn knows that even a light brush against the skin, like that from putting on clothes, can become excruciating....
Loading Comments...