Type to search


Study links stress to change in brain size

A recent study released by Yale University linked chronic anxiety and Major Depressive Disorder to a reduction in brain size. Despite studies finding decreased brain sizes for years, the new study, published in the journal “Nature Medicine,” is the first to prove a direct connection between Chronic Anxiety, the appearance of MDD and a decrease in the size of parts of the brain.

Brian Sanders, a professor of psychology at Drake University,  believes that any time a new “direct connection” is made, the findings are important.

“Any time you can find a better idea about the precise mechanisms that are involved in the human neuropsychiatric conditions, it allows us to better understand the condition,” Sanders said. “We always want to try and understand not just that things are related, but (have) a better understanding of what is really the cause.”

The study tested genes in live mice and the postmortem brains of humans both with and without depression. According to the study, the “decreased expression” of certain genes found in people with MDD is caused by “chronic stress exposure.” Sanders said the brain is made up of cells that make connections called synapses that are responsible for certain functions. The death of these synapses is what causes the volume of the brain to shrink.

“The (stress hormone) comes from the adrenal gland, and when it gets released, it goes in the blood, through the body including the brain. There are receptors in the brain for that hormone,” Sanders said. “When high levels of that (stress hormone) damage the brain, you find that receptors stop working, and that is when the brain shrinks…The (stress hormone) over long periods of time damages the brain tissue.”

Kirk Bragg, a counselor at the Drake University Counseling Center,  sees the correlation between anxiety and depression in the students he sees.

“It would be relatively rare to have someone with significant depression who was not also anxious,” Bragg said. “I think usually it starts with anxiety. Anxiety tends to come first and depression sometimes follows.”

Bragg believes that depression is the most prominent reason students come into the UCC. However, many who are suffering from depression do not want to categorize their symptoms as such.

“Sometimes students will phrase it as they are ‘stressed out’…they will not phrase it as depression, but it becomes clear that is what we are talking about,” Bragg said.

According to the Yale study, MDD is seen in 17 percent of people and is “predicted to be the number two cause of illness worldwide by the year 2020.”

Bragg said a true percent is “hard to pin down”, but the general statistic is that 10 percent suffer from depression, and the number is likely high in students.

“I would guess that the percentage is higher here because…it is an uncertain time so the anxiety is higher,” Braggs said. “I do not think Drake’s problem is any greater than anywhere else, but certainly, the overall trend is that depression is growing.”

Assistant Director of Wellness Johanna Determann believes that stress is not always negative, but many students do suffer from stress because of being overextended.

“There is this pressure to always to succeed and to be involved in as much as possible. What is more important — your health, feeling like a balanced individual or being so over-committed?” Determann said. “I think over-commitment causes the most stress among college students.”

Bragg feels there are three major signs of depression.

“Poor sleep, low energy and poor concentration. Those are the key things,” Bragg said. “With someone who is anxious then depressed, what you hear is about panic attacks. All of a sudden, it strikes without warning, and your heart beats really fast; you’re sweating and you feel nervous.”

However, Bragg asserts that just because someone is feeling depressed or anxious does not mean that they are suffering from the MDD or Chronic Anxiety mentioned in the study.

“Somebody who is going through a tough period — say it is finals week and you have two papers due. (They) are going through a couple weeks of anxiety,” Braggs said. “If this has been going on for six months or longer and there is a loss of function, that is major depression.”

Bragg considers major depression to exist when there is a major change in person functionality.

“They are not making it to work; they are isolating themselves or they are not bathing…Major depression, you start to see a major down trend in function,” Bragg said.

Sanders agrees with Bragg.

“It is not the sort of thing that happens quickly and spontaneously. Acute stress that we all go through on a daily basis in and of itself is not going to do that,” Sander said. “The subjects that are studied are people that have had long-term depression and long-term stress.”

Bragg one major sign of depression is not sleeping enough or sleeping too much. Consequently, his first recommendation to students feeling depressed or stressed is to sleep.

“Get some sleep. That is something everybody can do…A lot of students think it is optional. They think you can go night after night with a lack of sleep and catch up on the weekends. That is not the case,” Braggs said. “But if these symptoms have been prolonged for six weeks or longer, it is time to talk to somebody.”

Determann said in order to help students with stress management the Wellness Center is collaborating with Student Life to put on a “Stresstival” on Nov. 5.

“We are going to bring different vendors and exhibiters on campus — in Olmsted…just to talk about the different way to manage stress or reduce stress,” Determann said. “We hope that we get a lot of students stopping by either between classes or before or after lunch because we are trying to raise awareness of reducing stress and making the college experience as enjoyable as possible.”

While Determann does not think students should be worried about being stressed enough to lose brain mass, she says the study is a good reminder.

“Think that a lot of times, especially when we are young, we think we are invincible to a lot of different diseases. If we can reduce the amount of unnecessary stressors in our lives, we are probably going to be healthier and happier individuals,” Determann said.

Skip to content