A new study out of Canada reveals new insights into the link between chronic stress conditions and relationships. Specifically, this study looked at how stress could spread from person to person and how this transference of stress affects brain health.
Researchers at the University of Calgary investigated brain changes in male and female mice in this study. All mice were first separated into groups of two in different cages. Scientists then took one of the mice from these groups and exposed them to a mild form of stress. They then put these stressed-out mice back with their partners and examined the brain patterns of both.
Professors involved in this project were interested to see the changes in neurons often referred to as CRH. CRH neurons are critical for the body’s reaction and response to stressful events.
Investigators found that both the mouse that was exposed to stress and their sheltered partner had extremely similar CRH levels once they came in contact. This suggests that stress, just like airborne diseases, is contagious.
To study the effects of stress on the brain further, researchers used an optogenetic technique to turn on and off CRH neurons with the flashing of a light. When they turned off these neurons in both mice, they noticed a decrease in brain deterioration often associated with chronic stress conditions. By contrast, researchers found that when they turned on their light by the mice who saw a stressful event, these mice transferred that stress to their partner.
Interestingly, scientists observed that females had an advantage over males when it came to naturally reducing CRH levels. When they paired a female mouse that had absorbed stress from a previous affected partner with a new mouse that was unaffected by the stressful event, the CRH levels in the female’s brain decreased. For some reason, this didn’t work for male mice.
Researchers hypothesize that the transference of stress is an evolutionary adaptation most likely used to alert group members to a perceived threat. This study shows a clear link between stress levels and the quality of one’s social interactions.
Study authors hope their research will make people more conscious about how much stress they are giving off and absorbing from people around them. Consistent exposure to stress has been linked with numerous mental health disorders ranging from anxiety to depression.
Researchers believe these findings could help psychotherapists better understand the importance of social interactions and stress levels, especially in patients with conditions like PTSD and major depression.
All of this research was conducted at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute. Key study authors include Drs. Toni-Lee Sterley, Dinara Baimoukhametova, and Jaideep S. Bains. The journal Nature Neuroscience published this study under the title, “Social transmission and buffering of synaptic changes after stress.”