Circuitry found linking cerebral cortex to body's stress response


Our autonomic nervous system influences internal organs and governs key functions such as heart rate, digestion, and temperature regulation. Psychosomatic diseases are those without clear physical basis, and are presumed to have a mental component. They are often viewed with suspicion by modern medicine because a neural link between brain areas of cognitive function and the autonomic nervous system has been lacking. Until now.

In a paper appearing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dum et al. have identified a neural network linking the adrenal medulla to areas of the cerebral cortex in monkeys. These cortical areas are involved in motion planning and control, cognitive function, and emotional regulation. The authors believe this circuitry can provide top-down control of the adrenal gland's release of stress hormone which govern "fight or flight" responses. They state that:

Taken together, these findings raise the possibility that the areas of the cerebral cortex that influence the adrenal medulla also are key cortical nodes of a “stress and depression connectome.”

An approachable summary of this work can be found here. Read the rest

Programmers' stress levels can accurately predict the quality of their code


In Using (bio)metrics to predict code quality online, presented at the ACM's 38th International Conference on Software Engineering, two Swiss researchers presented their work on monitoring programmers' biometrics to predict the quality of the code they were writing.

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Relax! Calm app and website are here to reduce your stress


Negativity-reducing website offers guided relaxation breaks of 2 to 20 minutes. They also have a free smartphone app to help you meditate, sleep, or relax wherever you are. Read the rest

The infrastructure of longevity — a systems-level perspective of living to 100

I really enjoyed reading a recent story in The New York Times Magazine about attempts to understand extreme longevity — the weird tendency for certain populations to have larger-than-average numbers of people who live well into their 90s, if not 100s.

Written by Dan Buettner, the piece focuses on the Greek island of Ikaria, and, in many ways, it's a lot like a lot of the other stories I've read on this subject. From a scientific perspective, we don't really understand why some people live longer than others. And we definitely don't understand why some populations have more people who live longer. There are lots of theories. Conveniently, they tend to coincide with our own biases about what we currently think is most wrong with our own society. So articles about extremely long-lived populations tend to offer a lot of inspiring stories, some funny quotes from really old people, and not a lot in the way of answers.

Buettner's story has all those elements, but it also proposes some ideas that were, for me, really thought provoking. After spending much of the article discussing the Ikarian's diet (it's low in meat and sugar, high in antioxidants, and includes lots of locally produced food and wine) and their laid-back, low-stress way of life, Buettner doesn't suggest that we'll all live to be 100 if we just, individually, try to live exactly like the Ikarians do. In fact, he points out that other communities of long-lived individuals actually live differently — Californian Seventh-Day Adventists, for instance, eat no meat at all and don't drink, and they live with the normal stresses of everyday American life. Read the rest

Robert Sapolsky on Stress: An Interview

Prof. Robert Sapolsky on Coping with Stress (Audio link) Photo Courtesy of Indiana University

Robert Sapolsky is a Professor of Biological Sciences and Neurology at Stanford University. He is the author of A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons. Avi Solomon:

What event or person influenced your decision to study Primatology? Robert Sapolsky:

Reading The Year of the Gorilla, by George Schaller, when I was in middle school. Schaller was the first person to do field work with gorillas (long before Dian Fossey). I had a vague sense of wanting to do primatology before that (sufficiently so to be reading the book), but that book cemented it. Read the rest