Recent scientific and technological advances are bringing us closer to understanding biological aspects of the brain and body that underlie resilience—the ability of people under acute or chronic stress, or who have experienced trauma, to find ways of coping successfully. Among other things, research has shown that the ability to handle profound adversity, while it can be an inherited trait, can also depend on behaviors and attitudes that can be learned during one’s life.

This steadily accumulating knowledge, reported in the journal Biological Psychiatry by researchers who surveyed what is currently known about resilience, has obvious pertinence to the stressful circumstances in which millions of Americans find themselves today in this time of pandemic.

The first author of the paper is Adriana Feder, M.D., of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, whose 2015 BBRF Independent Investigator grant supported work on the project. The paper’s senior author is Dennis S. Charney, M.D., Dean of the Icahn School, an emeritus member of the BBRF Scientific Council, and 2019 BBRF Colvin Prize winner for Outstanding Achievement in Mood Disorders Research.

“Recent studies have begun to show that resilience is an ‘active process,’” the authors noted, and “not simply involving a reversal of pathological mechanisms.” Research has also shown that resilience is “equally influenced” by genetic and environmental factors, they say. In fact, environmental circumstances, such as growing up in extreme poverty or having an abusive or inattentive caretaker, can alter the way one’s genes operate. Many studies of stress, both acute and chronic, have shown that life circumstances can change gene activity through the molecular “tagging” of our DNA. To cite one of many possible examples: “epigenetic tags” can increase or decrease gene activity that affects the production of stress hormones, and thus an individual’s response to stress.

Research has been quite powerful in identifying the damage that adversity, stress, and trauma can have on the young developing brain, which has been shown to be especially vulnerable as a consequence of the brain’s greater plasticity during childhood and adolescence. This same heightened plasticity, on the other hand, presents key opportunities for preventive interventions during development. The adult brain, while less plastic, does retain the ability to change over time. Indeed, learning itself—learning from experience, one might say—depends on the ability of synapses, or connections between neurons in the brain, to become stronger or weaker in response to events in our moment-to-moment existence.

A “rich body” of research, the authors noted, has identified factors contributing to resilience in adulthood. These include: higher emotion regulation, greater executive function (the brain’s higher cognitive abilities), the ability to be optimistic, the ability to cope with adversity, the capacity to re-evaluate one’s experiences and reactions; and having and seeking social support. “Many of these protective factors are interlinked,” the authors said.

They mean “linked” in the biological sense. They explain, for example, that automatic emotion regulation involves activation of specific parts of the cortex (parts of the cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex). Activity in these areas, in turn, is associated with greater executive function, which is required to mount effective responses to threats. Higher emotion regulation capacity also supports cognitive flexibility in challenging situations, while cognitive reappraisal activates brain regions mediating cognitive control and modulates activation of the amygdala. Positive emotions also support resilience, the researchers said, by promoting broader associative thinking and adaptive coping.

There are many more findings that reveal the biological underpinnings of being able to cope with adversity. “At the core of resilience are stress responses that are sufficient but not excessive, as well as rapid and efficient recovery of mind and body following stress,” the authors point out. This biology can be influenced in various ways, ranging from having the trait of being positive (whether one grows up with it or acquires it later on) to engaging in physical exercise, which can boost mood by increasing neural plasticity in brain reward circuits regulated by the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Other key signaling systems cited by the authors that have been associated with resilience include the body’s natural opioid system called the endocannabinoid system, as well as the hormone oxytocin, a neural growth factor called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and a peptide called neuropeptide Y. Finally, an emerging body of research seeks to relate changes in the strength of the immune system with behavioral resilience and the ability to deal with stress.

Brain plasticity decreases in old age, with probable impacts on the ability to endure adversity. Yet some research suggests that even older adults have the ability to adapt and learn new ways of responding to the losses and disappointments that are common as health generally declines, and spouses and cherished friends are lost. We reported on psychological adaptation among elders in a story that appeared in this space last week.

In summing up, Drs. Charney, Feder and colleagues note: “As the brain continues to reorganize throughout the life span, resilience-enhancing interventions can be informed by our evolving knowledge of psycho-biological changes at each stage of development.”

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