Love Your Hippocampus, Don’t Eat It

This should motivate you to manage your stress better. In The New York Times this past weekend was the following on hippocampus research:

Peter Gianaros, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh, [...] found that, among a group of 48 women followed for about 20 years, higher reports of stress correlated with a reduction in the volume of the hippocampus, a brain region important for learning and memory. In animals, chronic stress shrinks this area, and also hinders the ability to learn.

In other words, poorly managed stress eats your brain–specifically the cells of your hippocampus.

Crap!

And how does one go about restoring brain cells?

Two research-based methods are exercise and meditation.

Exercise.

The following was reported by Gretchen Reynolds in the Health Section of The New York Times on July 3, 2013:

[R]esearchers at Princeton University recently discovered that exercise creates vibrant new brain cells — and then shuts them down when they shouldn’t be in action.

In other words, exercise does double duty, both stimulating and creating attention cells and calming them, putting a person in a state that Buddhists would tend to consider ideal (and sometimes attempt to achieve through caffeinated tea drinking combined with meditation). Here’s the NYT again:

Studies in animals have shown that physical exercise creates excitable neurons in abundance, especially in the hippocampus, a portion of the brain known to be involved in thinking and emotional responses.

But exercise also has been found to reduce anxiety in both people and animals.

One way researchers discovered this was to study mice:

[The Princeton researchers] gathered adult mice, injected them with a substance that marks newborn cells in the brain, and for six weeks, allowed half of them to run at will on little wheels, while the others sat quietly in their cages.

Afterward, the scientists determined each group’s baseline nervousness. Given access to cages with open, well-lighted areas, as well as shadowy corners, the running mice were more willing to cautiously explore and spend time in open areas, an indication that they were more confident and less anxious than the sedentary animals.

It appears that the trick behind exercise’s calming powers is in the making of neurons that produce GABA neurotransmitters:

The runners’ brains [...] had a notable number of new neurons specifically designed to release the neurotransmitter GABA, which inhibits brain activity, keeping other neurons from firing easily. In effect, these are nanny neurons, designed to shush and quiet activity in the brain.

In the runners’ brains, there were large new populations of these cells in a portion of the hippocampus, the ventral region, associated with the processing of emotions. (The rest of the hippocampus, the dorsal region, is more involved with thinking and memory.)

And here’s the lead researcher:

What all of this suggests, says Elizabeth Gould, director of the Gould Lab at Princeton, who wrote the paper with her graduate student Timothy Schoenfeld, now at the National Institute of Mental Health, and others, “is that the hippocampus of runners is vastly different from that of sedentary animals. Not only are there more excitatory neurons and more excitatory synapses, but the inhibitory neurons are more likely to become activated, presumably to dampen the excitatory neurons, in response to stress.”

Meditation.

The New York Times, in its Health section, also has a startling article on meditation’s apparent ability to literally change how the brain wires itself up. In a study, after only 8 weeks of very modest (30 minutes a day) meditation practice, meditators had measurable brain changes that contrasted with a control group:

[S]cientists say that meditators [...] may be benefiting from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.

And what kind of meditation was being practiced by the study participants? The NYT reports that it was Buddhist vipassana:

Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author, said the participants practiced mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that was introduced in the United States in the late 1970s. It traces its roots to . . . Buddhist techniques . . . “The main idea is to use different objects to focus one’s attention, and it could be a focus on sensations of breathing, or emotions or thoughts, or observing any type of body sensations,” she said. “But it’s about bringing the mind back to the here and now, as opposed to letting the mind drift.” Generally the meditators are seated upright on a chair or the floor and in silence, although sometimes there might be a guide leading a session, Dr. Hölzel said.

In the 1940s, psychologist Donald Hebb made a quip that appears to be getting a lot of contemporary traction:

Neurons that fire together wire together.

My take-away from recent brain research is the following: whenever I’m stressed or anxious, I should ask myself if I want to be eating my hippocampus. Since I obviously don’t, my second question should be: how can I initiate, right now, something that will be good for my hippocampus? It might be no more than asking myself a calming and disengaging question to counter the red alerts going off in and around me, like the following hippie slogan from the 1960s:

What if they gave a war and nobody came?

Or it could be a determination to go swimming; or to bring attention to the breath or some nearby beauty; or to let things continue their course in arising and passing away, observed but not attached to, like clouds. It might even be the pleasure of writing a blog post. Or simply saying–“What’s the hurry?”–and slowing down and really noticing what’s happening in and around me now. Whatever works. But going forward, I intend to be more mindful about what I’m allowing to happen to myself when I’m stressed, and to love my hippocampus rather than eat it.

__________

Stanford professor, Dr. Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, is perhaps the best “go to” expert on the subject of stress and health. A lecture of his on the subject starts at the four minute mark of the below YouTube:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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