(Stillness in the Storm Editor) A recent study conducted by the University of Rochester Medical Center identified one of the brain systems in charge of repair and new connections. Microglia cells act as repair/connection bots for the mind, working to rewire your brain when you’re learning, whether, by study, daydreaming, getting triggered or action. What’s interesting is that stress seems to shut down this system, giving us insights into how we might maintain health into old age.
It might sound strange, but getting triggered is a kind of learning because the effect is the same—the brain and consciousness changes in response.
The brain is constantly rewiring itself based on what’s happening in our lives. When we get stressed and don’t know how to deal with the situation, triggering the freeze response, this produces brain changes that result in PTSD symptoms. Conversely, when we manage a stressful situation with bravery, this produces brain changes that result in the reverse of PTSD, resilience and enhanced learning capacity.
Thus, understanding how the brain is affected by stress and how it repairs itself will be useful.
Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter in charge of motivating us during states of arousal, whether they are minor events, like driving in traffic, or major life challenges, like losing your job or avoiding a life-threatening situation. This is the so-called fear neurotransmitter, which in high enough amounts, triggers the sympathetic nervous system into action, activating the fight, flight or freeze response. When this “triggering” occurs, the microglia cells go into a form of dormancy.
This study demonstrates the mechanism whereby prolonged stress degrades the brain, and literally prevents learning. This is likely why those who experience chronic unaddressed stress and anxiety often have difficulty learning and adjusting to life. Why? Because the mechanism that facilitates adaptivity, learning, or healing, can’t work properly due to chronic stress.
Healing and growth, from a neural plasticity perspective, is both noticeable and subtle. When you have a major learning episode, your conscious mind takes stock of what you experienced, but there are changes that take place deep within that you may not notice as palpably. For example, after experiencing a minor tragedy or traumatic event, you might consciously deal with the bulk of the situation, while later, you’ll feel “aftershocks”—you might find yourself staring blankly into a cup of tea in deep revery as you contemplate the deeper meaning of things.
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What is likely happening is that the brain is repairing itself from the trauma, which you feel as deep inner introspection, as the newness of your own mind begins to dawn on you. Later, you’ll notice these changes in your behavior, as a heightened state of sensitivity or alertness with respect to the specifics of the original trauma—PTSD responses.
In essence, a stress response always causes changes in the internal nature of being, as mediated by the brain and neural connections. But these changes might not fully flesh themselves out if the individual stays in a triggered state. Hence, once a resolution takes place, this can often be attended by moments of deep reflection.
The study’s implication, I assert, is that learning how to downgrade stressful states, likely through mindfulness practices, will help retain mental faculties into old age. What’s more, the treasure trove of wisdom contained within any life experience, especially challenging ones, will be more accessible the more we learn how to work with the body and brain’s natural systems.
Stress triggers inflammation, which is only meant to be temporary. Inflammation causes malfunction of the body and mind if not reduced through healthy means. And in psychology, one reduces the “inflammation” of stress, through the agency of mind, through techniques of consciousness, be they mind-body, like yoga, or conceptual, like philosophy and grieving.
Of course, the reduction of stress can be induced through the body, using techniques like EFT, meditation, and consuming herbs or substances designed to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system—the body’s natural “de-triggering” anti-anxiety system.
And if we are good about detoxification, especially the removal of heavy metals, we’ll enhance the brain’s natural adaptive system. This appears to be what good aging is all about.
by Staff Writer, October 21st, 2019
Science tells us that a lot of good things happen in our brains while we sleep — learning and memories are consolidated and waste is removed, among other things. New research shows for the first time that important immune cells called microglia — which play an important role in reorganizing the connections between nerve cells, fighting infections, and repairing damage — are also primarily active while we sleep.
The findings, which were conducted in mice and appear in the journal Nature Neuroscience, have implications for brain plasticity, diseases like autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, and dementia, which arise when the brain’s networks are not maintained properly, and the ability of the brain to fight off infection and repair the damage following a stroke or other traumatic injury.
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“It has largely been assumed that the dynamic movement of microglial processes is not sensitive to the behavioral state of the animal,” said Ania Majewska, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Rochester Medical Center’s (URMC) Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience and lead author of the study. “This research shows that the signals in our brain that modulate the sleep and awake state also act as a switch that turns the immune system off and on.”
Microglia serve as the brain’s first responders, patrolling the brain and spinal cord and springing into action to stamp out infections or gobble up debris from dead cell tissue. It is only recently that Majewska and others have shown that these cells also play an important role in plasticity, the ongoing process by which the complex networks and connections between neurons are wired and rewired during development and to support learning, memory, cognition, and motor function.
In previous studies, Majewska’s lab has shown how microglia interact with synapses, the juncture where the axons of one neuron connects and communicates with its neighbors. The microglia help maintain the health and function of the synapses and prune connections between nerve cells when they are no longer necessary for brain function.
The current study points to the role of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that signals arousal and stress in the central nervous system. This chemical is present in low levels in the brain while we sleep, but when production ramps up it arouses our nerve cells, causing us to wake up and become alert. The study showed that norepinephrine also acts on a specific receptor, the beta2 adrenergic receptor, which is expressed at high levels in microglia. When this chemical is present in the brain, the microglia slip into a sort of hibernation.
The study, which employed an advanced imaging technology that allows researchers to observe activity in the living brain, showed that when mice were exposed to high levels of norepinephrine, the microglia became inactive and were unable to respond to local injuries and pulled back from their role in rewiring brain networks.
“This work suggests that the enhanced remodeling of neural circuits and repair of lesions during sleep may be mediated in part by the ability of microglia to dynamically interact with the brain,” said Rianne Stowell, Ph.D. a postdoctoral associate at URMC and first author of the paper. “Altogether, this research also shows that microglia are exquisitely sensitive to signals that modulate brain function and that microglial dynamics and functions are modulated by the behavioral state of the animal.”
The research reinforces to the important relationship between sleep and brain health and could help explain the established relationship between sleep disturbances and the onset of neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
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Materials provided by University of Rochester Medical Center. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
- Rianne D. Stowell, Grayson O. Sipe, Ryan P. Dawes, Hanna N. Batchelor, Katheryn A. Lordy, Brendan S. Whitelaw, Mark B. Stoessel, Jean M. Bidlack, Edward Brown, Mriganka Sur & Ania K. Majewska. Noradrenergic signaling in the wakeful state inhibits microglial surveillance and synaptic plasticity in the mouse visual cortex. Nature Neuroscience, 2019 DOI: 10.1038/s41593-019-0514-0
Stillness in the Storm Editor: Why did we post this?
Psychology is the study of the nature of mind. Philosophy is the use of that mind in life. Both are critically important to gain an understanding of as they are aspects of the self. All you do and experience will pass through these gateways of being. The preceding information provides an overview of this self-knowledge, offering points to consider that people often don’t take the time to contemplate. With the choice to gain self-awareness, one can begin to see how their being works. With the wisdom of self-awareness, one has the tools to master their being and life in general, bringing order to chaos through navigating the challenges with the capacity for right action.
Not sure how to make sense of this? Want to learn how to discern like a pro? Read this essential guide to discernment, analysis of claims, and understanding the truth in a world of deception: 4 Key Steps of Discernment – Advanced Truth-Seeking Tools.
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