Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance) scanning, researchers from the U Penn School of Medicine have, for the first time, visualized the effects of psychological stress in a human brain:
In the Penn study, researchers induced stress on healthy subjects by asking them to quickly tackle challenging mental exercises while being monitored for performance. During the fMRI scans, the researchers also recorded subjects’ emotional responses — such as stress, anxiety, and frustration — and measured the corresponding changes in stress hormone and heart rate. Many subjects described themselves as being “flustered, distracted, rushed and upset” by the stress task.
The results showed increased cerebral blood-flow during the “stress test” in the right anterior portion of the brain (prefrontal cortex) — an area long associated with anxiety and depression. More interestingly, the increased cerebral blood-flow persisted even when the testing was complete. These results suggest a strong link between psychological stress and negative emotions. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex is also associated with the ability to perform executive functions — such as working memory and goal-oriented behavior — that permit humans to adapt to environmental challenges and threats. “The message from this study is that while stress may be useful in increasing focus, chronic stress could also be detrimental to mental health,” concludes Jiongjiong Wang, PhD, Assistant Professor of Radiology and principal investigator of the study.
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