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STRESS and the Brain

May 24, 2012

Stress and trauma

I have written before of my father’s experience in World War 2 and it’s traumatic after effects. He was involved in what history calls the Battle of the Atlantic. He served throughout the entire war in the Merchant Navy as a chief engineer. Merchant ships were privately owned vessels commandeered by national necessity and sent to war in the national interest. The war made them vital.

As the battle for the Atlantic progressed, merchant ships had to be protected in convoy by Royal Naval ships. Nevertheless my father’s company lost 24 ships during the war and my father’s ship was torpedoed by a German submarine on 30th May 1941 on a voyage Calcutta – Capetown – Oban – London. The ship went down quickly and there was a loss of one life, that of the Captain of the ship. My father with others drifted on the Atlantic for 3 days and nights on an open raft (four drums in a wooden frame) before being picked up and taken to the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa.  One in four merchant seamen were lost at sea during the war.

Despite their sheer endurance, according to Richard Woodman’s book “The Real Cruel Sea” many a seaman was off pay from the day his ship was sunk.  As a young child I can remember meeting my father at the train station…he had nothing left…everything had gone down with the ship…and it was a matter of only weeks before he was aboard another vessel and heading for another dose of the same. As soon as the war ended my father left the sea and that life he had enjoyed in the pre-war years: this change was exacerbated by family tragedy as my brother died through medical error. My father survived only four years ashore as Manager of a ship yard before the accumulation of stress and trauma experienced during the war caught up with him…..he became a victim of that war. A proud, sincere and much loved man, he was devastated to be unable to take care of his family. He died in 1963 at age 61 in a mental hospital: his death certificate indicated “cerebral atrophy.” But it meant little in those days….

What does stress do to the brain?

I expect you know what it feels like when your heart races, your blood pressure rises and you don’t feel at all like eating? Older textbooks explained that in response to stress, the hypothalamus (a part of the “old brain”) triggers a wave of hormones that makes the heart race and the blood pressure rise. We may find ourselves consumed by anxiety, dry mouthed, sweaty palms or unable to control impulses that we normally have in check (like me eating chocolate). Recently however, due to new imaging techniques, research has indicated the important function of the pre-frontal area of the brain in response to stress, that part behind your forehead responsible for abstract thought, concentration and also for storing working memory.

The pre-frontal cortex normally holds our emotions in check: but it can be shut down.

For decades after World War 2 investigators analysed why pilots who were highly skilled in peacetime made simple but fatal mistakes in the heat of battle. The pre-frontal area of the brain normally holds our emotions in check by toning down activity in primitive brain systems (those which were important for “fight or flight” during evolution). However the pre-frontal cortex is also extremely vulnerable. Under even everyday stress the brain’s command centre can be shut down and when the going gets tough we can freeze or panic.

Cumulative stress…. a shrunken brain

Rajita Sinha (2012) has shown what happens in humans when the assault on the pre-frontal cortex lasts for days or weeks.  Not only does exposure to adverse life events produce smaller gray matter volume (a shrunken brain), it occurs in key prefrontal and limbic regions of the brain involved in stress, emotion and impulse control. Under chronic stress the pre-frontal area, usually engaged in flexible sustained reasoning shrivels, and conversely our lower emotional centres expand. Other studies show that some people are more vulnerable to stress and in some cases to mental illness.

Many questions I had about my father have been answered by this research. The cumulative effect of stress in war, the breakdown, the memory issues, etc. However the  institutions of the 1950s and the treatments and medications available did little to help….

Arnsten AFT, Mazure C, Sinha R. This is your brain in meltdown. Scientific American, 2012, April, 48-53.

Ansell EB, Rando K, Tuit K, Guarnaccia J, Sinha R. Cumulative Adversity and Smaller Gray Matter Volume in Medial Prefrontal, Anterior Cingulate, and Insula Regions. Biol Psychiatry. 2012 Jan 2. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 22218286.

Thanks to Danny Morse for giving me “The Real Cruel Sea” by Richard Woodman. It answered a lot of questions….

And to Peter Morse for bringing me Scientific American.

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