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Rats Show Humans How We Deal With Stress

This is a relatively old news story I bookmarked way back when, so as I stress out over the huge amount of work I have to do this week, I thought it would be a good time to talk about the role stress plays on our health.

Stress has been linked to several maladies including blood pressure, stiffen arteries, suppressed immune systems, heighten risks of diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease–just to name a few.

However, neurological science has yet to define all the different ways that stress can impact our body.

But we’re learning news ways every day.

Case in point,  a research study published last year in the journal “Science, by Nuno Sousa of the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute at the University of Minho, Portugal describes experiments in which chronically stressed rats constantly regress to familiar routines and rote responses like pressing a bar for food even though they had no intention of eating.

Just how the researchers understood a rat’s intent is not explained, however, they did say that studies of the rat’s brains showed that centers of the brain dedicated to executive decision making had shrunk while those that controlled habit formation had grown.

According to one scientist, not associated with the research team, the findings suggest why humans “get themselves into a rut.”

Fair enough, but the really interesting finding of this study isn’t so much how we respond but what physiologically happens to the brain as a result. We actually see some parts of the brain expand while others shrink.  It shows how the brain is elastic and malleable.

What’s more, when the stressed rats were left to relax, their brain changed again, with the executive management portion growing, and the behavioral portion shrinking a bit. This speaks to the incredible recuperative powers of the brain.

How incredible?

Well, considering the stress these rats were subjected to, very incredible.

Warning, animal lovers may not want to hear the rest: but to study the rats’ reaction to stress, the rodents were subjected to what could only be called “Abu Ghraib” like conditions, including electroshock, habitation with larger, more imposing rodents and even water-boarding (“prolonged dunks in water”).

The good news, after just 4 weeks out of prison, the stressed rats were able to modify their behavior and their brain returned to normal– for a rat that is.


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