Life can be a real whirlwind at times, so you’ve gotta be tough in order to cope with this thing we call human existence. And while there’s never any telling what the universe is going to throw at us, a team of scientists from Yale have at least pinpointed the neural epicenter of mental resilience, which could one day lead to new treatments for those suffering from stress, anxiety, or other disorders as a result of being overwhelmed by life’s obstacles.
The first clues as to the location of the brain’s toughness center were revealed in a series of previous studies that indicated that abnormal activity patterns in a brain region called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VmPFC) appears to be implicated in depression, alcohol addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder, among several other maladaptive coping behaviors.
This inspired the Yale team to devise an experiment, in which volunteers were exposed to a series of “highly aversive images of terror, violence, mutilation, fear, disgust, and desperation,” followed by more neutral images, while having their brains scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Before taking part, all participants were assessed for emotional resilience, by answering questions regarding maladaptive coping behaviors such as “binge alcohol intake, emotional eating, and frequency of arguments and fights” in their daily lives.
Reporting their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study authors note that exposure to disturbing images provokes a “dynamic stress-specific mobilization of the VmPFC,” which initially becomes inhibited before later entering a highly active state. This process, they claim, appears to mediate the stress response, resulting in the softening of neurological, physiological and behavioral reactions to traumatic experiences.
The difference in dynamic activity in the VmPFC of those with high and low resilience scores is striking, Sinha et al, PNAS / Yale
However, they found that this “neuroflexibility” – or “neuroplasticity” – of the VmPFC was not equal in all participants, with some showing much more dynamic activity in this brain region in the aftermath of viewing stressful images than others. Significantly, they then discovered that those with more dynamic responses in this brain region tended to have higher resilience scores than those with lower dynamism.
As such, they conclude that the neuroflexibility of the VmPFC may be a major determinant of a person’s resilience and capacity to cope with stress.
How this can be used to help those who suffer from low resilience or maladaptive coping behaviors is not yet clear, although identifying the neural circuitry underlying this process is sure to be a useful starting point for future research into the subject.