University of Calgary

Brains in permanent overdrive

September 16, 2010

Brains in permanent overdrive

Jaideep Bain in his UCalgary lab.Jaideep Bain in his UCalgary lab.By Marta Cyperling

"We know that the brain is responsible for your response to stress. We also know that once you're exposed to stress, you're primed to respond more robustly to other stresses. What's particularly vexing as a scientist is trying to understand how the brain does this," says Dr. Jaideep Bains, an associate professor in the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary who is funded by Alberta Innovates—Health Solutions. "That is how your brain is supposed to work. The dilemma is, when people are exposed to chronic stress, their brain is permanently primed to go into overdrive."

The Faculty of Medicine team, including U of C post-doctoral fellow Dr. Brent Kuzmiski, is being published in the October issue of the prestigious international journal Nature Neuroscience. Following up on findings in which they identified the specific mechanism in the brain that switches on the stress command centre, the team has now shown, in rats, a mechanism that primes the cells to be on "standby" for any new stresses.

"If you are consistently exposed to stress at work or in your personal life, your brain stays stuck in hyper-vigilant mode," says Bains. "Understanding stress at the level of the brain cells is vital, because stress is a complex chain reaction. Currently, there are very few treatments for stress, and many of the ones currently available target symptoms often associated with stress—depression, fatigue, and memory loss."

Bains' team has discovered that stress signals arriving in the brain leave a molecular imprint on the brain cells that last about a week. Those imprinted cells then respond more strongly to stress-relevant signals from the brain.

"It is essential that our brain is able to respond quickly to stress, release hormones, and activate the fight-or-flight response; this is a fundamental survival mechanism," says Bains. "In today's world of conflicting priorities, we may need to protect the brain against overreacting to chronic stress. Building on these findings, we could potentially uncover new therapeutic targets to soothe the brain’s stress centre by turning off the tap to the stress reaction."

For the first time, these scientists were able to introduce an antidote prior to the stress signals being received by the cells, thereby neutralizing the overreaction of the brain's stress command centre to incoming stress signals.

Bains' research is funded by Alberta Innovates—Health Solutions and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

For more information about the research team, visit:

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