08:19pm Wednesday 19 February 2020

Science: Brain rapidly gears up for fight or flight under stress

Noradrenaline is driving force behind this reorganization. (Science, November 25).

Almost instantly after encountering something terrifying, the brain gears up for an adequate response. This can happen within seconds. The resulting integrated state of body and mind is optimized to survive threatening situations. The changes underlying this response have not been mapped previously in this level of detail.

‘We feel the fear, our senses are sharpened, and we create lasting memories. But our capacity for careful deliberation is impaired so that we can respond rapidly above all’, says Erno Hermans, the first author of the paper that appears in Science on November 25. Hermans works at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour of the Radboud University/Radboud Medical Centre.

Horror in the scanner
Hermans showed his participants horror movies in the scanner while recording fluctuations in activity across the entire brain. That is an important new trend in neuroscience. ‘Subsequently, you can use statistical methods to determine which regions became active, and which regions formed a network of activity. We think these methods provide more insight into how the brain functions than looking at isolated responses to specific stimuli’.

‘Our setup moreover allows us to investigate specifically the response to acute stress. We see activity in other regions than those observed previously by other researchers. We think that this discrepancy can be explained by the fact that in those studies, participants continuously received negative feedback on their performance in a task. This creates pressure to achieve, which urges people to make a stronger effort. That also leads to stress, but not the acute fight-or-flight response in which we were interested.’

Cortisol or noradrenaline
Two hormones are involved in the brain’s response to stress: Cortisol and noradrenaline. By administering their participants drugs that suppress either cortisol or noradrenaline, Hermans and colleagues were able to determine that noradrenaline triggers the acute stress response. Hermans: ‘In response to acute stress, availability of cortisol in the brain increases, but this change is not very fast. Noradrenaline is released directly from the locus coeruleus in the brain. The field has a strong focus on the cortisol response, but we show that noradrenaline is more important in the early phase of the stress response.’

Stress-related noradrenergic activity prompts large-scale neural network reconfiguration. Erno J. Hermans ea; Science, November 25, 2011

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