APR 19, 2018 5:53 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.
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