UC San Diego experts take ‘A Deep Look Inside Our Minds’

Clockwise from top right, panelists Karen Dobkins, Andrea Chiba and Nicholas Spitzer and moderator James Nieh
Clockwise from top right, panelists Karen Dobkins, Andrea Chiba and Nicholas Spitzer and moderator James Nieh discuss stress and the brain.
(Screenshot by Elisabeth Frausto)

Webinar discusses stress and how to adapt.


Stress is a common affliction, and a UC San Diego webinar May 17 aimed to shed some light on it and what can be done to manage it.

The session, called “A Deep Look Inside Our Minds: Adapting to Change and Stress,” featured three researchers who discussed how our brains work and how they function in new or strained situations, along with suggestions on how to deal with such situations. It was a follow-up to a webinar last year on mental health.

“Stress is a common feature of normal life,” said Nicholas Spitzer, a professor emeritus in UCSD’s Neurobiology Department whose research explores how the brain changes in response to experience.

Prompt treatment may be the key to overcoming stress, Spitzer said.

He said his lab found that mice exposed to a non-injurious electric shock through a metal floor were reluctant to move about a new chamber, while mice not exposed to the shock explored new environments more willingly.

“We can quantify this behavior in very easy ways” by measuring the distance the mice traveled in 10 minutes, he said. The mice that were not shocked covered more distance than those that were.

Looking into the brains of the mice, Spitzer focused on the neurons that contain serotonin, the “most commonly used pharmacological target for treating fear disorders,” he said.

The researchers looked for transmitter switching in the neurons “as possibly a basis for this kind of change in behavior,” Spitzer said.

In those neurons, the production of glutamate — “the ‘go’ signal” — decreased in response to the shocks, he said.

“We were fascinated when we found that overriding these transmitters ... prevented the acquisition of generalized fear,” he said.

Nicholas Spitzer of UCSD’s Neurobiology Department says treating stress immediately with fluoxetine can be helpful.
Nicholas Spitzer, a professor emeritus in UC San Diego’s Neurobiology Department, says treating stress immediately with fluoxetine can be helpful.
(Screenshot by Elisabeth Frausto)

Spitzer then investigated whether “the same transmitter switch also occurs in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.” He found that “something similar to what we see in mice is also occurring in the human brain in response to a severe stress,” he said.

Spitzer’s team explored “whether a drug that prevents transmitter switching could prevent acquisition of generalized fear behavior.”

Some of the shocked mice were given the antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac) right away. “This immediate treatment with fluoxetine prevented the transmitter switch and prevented the acquisition of generalized fear,” Spitzer said.

With treatment delayed by two weeks, “the delayed treatment does not prevent the transmitter switch and does not prevent the acquisition of generalized fear,” he said.

Function and emotion

When dealing with stress, context matters, according to Andrea Chiba, a professor in UCSD’s Department of Cognitive Science whose research focuses on neural systems.

The brain does not function independently of other bodily systems, Chiba said. It is “tightly integrated with the autonomic system,” which splits the nervous system into two divisions.

The parasympathetic division is often thought of as calming, responsible for slowing heart rate and stimulating digestion, she said, while the sympathetic division “often gets this sort of press as the ‘fight or flight’ system, where it accelerates our heart rate [and] inhibits our digestion and it allows our brain to work in a different way so that we can escape … dangerous situations.”

The truth is, Chiba said, these systems “are always working in balance,” allowing us “to interact with our environment fluidly.”

“We have a circuit that supports our internal feelings, or interoception,” she said, which allows us to take in information “from our visceral organs and process it in a way that we can understand our own internal feelings.”

Our emotional state can impair our decision-making, Chiba said. She relayed her study in which a rat free to roam is in a position to help a trapped rat, but “if the free rat picks up on the distress of the trapped rat … [the free rat] won’t open the door.”

“These brain states we put ourselves in really massively impact our behavior,” she said.

Our emotions, Chiba said, “have an adaptive purpose ... able to induce motivation, to spring us into action when needed, to actually lower our sensory threshold.”

But if we experience too much emotional arousal, “that may prevent us from helping, prevent us from functioning,” she said.

Building emotional resilience

Emotional resilience is “the ability to accept and learn from uncomfortable situations and emotions,” said Karen Dobkins, a professor of psychology at UCSD who focuses her research on mindfulness and mental well-being.

“It’s about letting emotions process at their own intelligent pace,” Dobkins said. We can’t rush emotional work, just as we can’t rush the time it takes to circulate blood through the body or digest a meal, she added.

Dobkins said emotional resilience can be improved through:

• Mindfulness — understanding and accepting emotions as impermanent experiences

• Cognitive approaches, such as intentionally making yourself uncomfortable and questioning your assumptions

• Positive psychology — the practice of gratitude and joy

Positive psychology also is choosing words carefully, Dobkins said. “When someone asks me how I’ve been, I say, ‘Life is rich’ or ‘Life is full.’ … ‘Busy’ sounds negative.”

Building emotional resilience is part of being healthy, she said.

“Bottling up your emotions and pretending they’re not there” will lead to somatic consequences such as stomachaches, headaches and more, Dobkins said. “Bottom line here is, don’t try to control your emotions. … They give you important information.” ◆