Occasional stress may actually have a positive impact on the brain according to a new study by lead author Daniela Kaufer, Ph.D., a Brain & Behavior Research Foundation 2009 NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee, and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley. While chronic stress has been linked to the development of anxiety and depression, this new study finds beneficial effect from some stress. The researchers looked at how episodes of temporary (or “acute”) stress stimulate the production of neurons in the hippocampus, which is the brain region that plays a key role in forming and retaining memories. In contrast to chronic stress, which can be detrimental and increase risks for many conditions, this study used mice models to show that within two weeks of experiencing a short-term stress—perhaps the right window of time needed to birth new neurons—mice showed improved memory.
The researchers found that the generation of new nerve cells was linked to a particular substance that can stimulate cell growth named “fibroblast growth factor 2” or “FGF2” for short. The research demonstrates that bursts of stress accompanied by stress hormones causes a rise of neural stem /progenitor cells in the hippocampus that are triggered by FGF2. A lack of FGF2 has been previously linked to depression.
Of the findings, Dr. Kaufer, asserts that some stress may make people more alert and enhance memory and behavior. She cautions that the length, amount and personal response plays a role in the potential for stress to benefit a person and sometimes substantial short-term stressors have a hand in the development of some chronic mental illnesses. To strike the right balance, she reminds us that meditation, sex and exercise are other ways to both mitigate stress and grow neurons. The study was published online on April 16, 2013 in eLife.