A Little Stress May Be Good For You
April 17, 2013

A Little Stress May Be Good For You

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Researchers writing in the new open access online journal eLife say that a little stress can actually be good for you.

Researchers at the University of California Berkeley´s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute found that acute, short-lived stress primes the brain for improved performance.

“You always think about stress as a really bad thing, but it´s not,” said Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. “Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance.”

They found while studying rats that brief stressful events caused stem cells in their brains to proliferate into new nerve cells that helped to improve the animals' mental performance.

“I think intermittent stressful events are probably what keeps the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert,” Kaufer said.

Bruce McEwen, head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University, who was not involved in the study, said the findings reinforce the notion that stress hormones help an animal adapt.

"After all, remembering the place where something stressful happened is beneficial to deal with future situations in the same place,” McEwen said.

The team found that stressed rats performed better on a memory test two weeks after a stressful event was induced, but not two days after the event. They established that the new nerve cells triggered by the acute stress were the same ones involved in learning new tasks two weeks later.

“In terms of survival, the nerve cell proliferation doesn´t help you immediately after the stress, because it takes time for the cells to become mature, functioning neurons,” Kaufer said. “But in the natural environment, where acute stress happens on a regular basis, it will keep the animal more alert, more attuned to the environment and to what actually is a threat or not a threat.”

The researchers said nerve cell proliferation after acute stress in the study was triggered by the release of a protein known as fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2) by astrocytes, which are brain cells formerly thought of as support cells.

“The FGF2 involvement is interesting, because FGF2 deficiency is associated with depressive-like behaviors in animals and is linked to depression in humans,” McEwen said.

The team added that further research needed to be performed to help identify the factors that determine whether a response to stress is good or bad.

“I think the ultimate message is an optimistic one,” Kaufer concluded. “Stress can be something that makes you better, but it is a question of how much, how long and how you interpret or perceive it.”

Researchers wrote in 2009 that having a little stress before going into surgery may actually help lead to a quicker recovery. The team found that patients whose immune systems responded to the stress of surgery recovered more quickly and completely than those patients whose immune system showed little or no reaction.