Resilience — being able to bounce back from defeat or difficulty — is a popular buzzword these days among parents, educators and therapists. But the truth is that some people naturally seem to have a Teflon coating when it comes to stress, with stressful experiences just rolling right off them. Others are more like Velcro, with the stress just sticking.
Now we understand a little better why this difference exists, along with some clues into the genetics behind resilience.
Mice were exposed to various stressful environments in the lab: A cage that tilted at random times, an unpredictable light-dark cycle, or confinement in a tight space. Then researchers looked at how the mice behaved as a result.
The changes weren’t just visible on the outside — they were also apparent in the mice’s genes.
The changes weren’t just visible on the outside — they were also apparent in the mice’s genes. The mice which were susceptible to stress had lower levels of a molecule called mGlu2, particularly in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is known to be involved in the stress response.
The Rockefeller University researchers found that changes in this molecule were due to Epigenetic — those that occur not in the genetic code itself, but in the degree to which a gene is expressed. And what determines these changes is the types of experiences — whether traumatic, sad, or happy — we have throughout our lives.
“Like people, each animal has unique experiences as it goes through its life. And we suspect that these life experiences can alter the expression of genes, and as a result, affect an animal's susceptibility to stress,” said author Bruce McEwen.
“We have taken an important step toward explaining the molecular origins of this stress gap by showing that inbred mice react differently to stress, with some developing behaviors that resemble anxiety and depression, and others remaining resilient. ”
Other research, in humans, has found that antidepressants, as well as physical exercise, can also go a long way in helping the brain return to a healthier state.
Research like this will be key to developing new treatments to reverse these changes in the brain. As always, talk with your doctor about ways to treat stress — particularly chronic stress — and depression. Though researchers continue to search for better treatments, there are many that have been shown to be very effective that exist right now.
The research is published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.