In recent posts we’ve been considering the therapeutic benefits to dealing with stress as a strategy for addressing pain and cancer. But what is the story behind these concerns with stress?

Researchers have long questioned why some people are resilient to stress while others aren’t. Dr. Eric J. Nestler of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center examined the biology behind stress resilience. His study investigated the vulnerability of mice to stress after social defeat. When mice are put in cages with bigger, more aggressive mice, some still avoid social interactions with other mice even a month later − a sign that the stress has overwhelmed them. Some, however, adapt and continue to interact.

This research, funded by NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health, found that the mice which do not recover from stress have higher rates of electrical activity in the nerve cells that make dopamine, a chemical that helps transmit nerve impulses. More nerve cell electrical activity caused the subject mice to make more of a protein (BDNF), which has been linked to a susceptibility to stress.

Dr. Nestler concludes from the research: “The fact that we could increase these animals’ ability to adapt to stress by blocking BDNF and its signals means that it may be possible to develop compounds that improve our own resilience to stress. This is a great opportunity to explore how to increase resistance in situations that might otherwise result in post-traumatic stress disorder.”(Nestler, 2008)

While this is a potentially valuable insight about the pathology of stress, perhaps there are different questions and considerations it should be raising. We’ll look at these alternatives next time.