Friday, June 23, 2017

"Complex networks throughout the primary sensory and motor cortices are tied directly to our stress responses."

A New Understanding of How Movement Decreases Stress - The Atlantic: "In the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Pittsburgh neuroscientists showed that they have discovered a discrete, elaborate network in the cerebral cortex that controls the adrenal medulla. It seems that the connections between the brain and the adrenal medulla are much more elaborate than previously understood. Complex networks throughout the primary sensory and motor cortices are tied directly to our stress responses. That discovery transformed Stricks’ understanding of how bodily movements influence our health. He’s starting pilates. “This is suggesting a much more decentralized process,” said Bruno of the findings...

“Something about axial control has an impact on stress responses,” Strick reasons. “There’s all this evidence that core strengthening has an impact on stress. And when you see somebody that's depressed or stressed out, you notice changes in their posture. When you stand up straight, it has an effect on how you project yourself and how you feel.  Well, lo and behold, core muscles have an impact on stress. And I suspect that if you activate core muscles inappropriately with poor posture, that’s going to have an impact on stress.” 

“These neural pathways might explain our intuitive sense for why there are many different strategies for coping with stress,” said Bruno. “I like the examples they give in the paper—that maybe this is why yoga and pilates are so successful. But there are lots of other things where people talk about mental imagery and all sorts of other ways that people deal with stress. I think having so many neural pathways having direct lines to the stress control system, that’s really interesting.” Strick focused on movement, but Bruno specializes in sensory neuroscience, so he read more into the findings in the primary somatosensory cortex. Some of these tactile areas in the brain seem to be providing as much input to the adrenal medulla as the cortical areas. 

“To me that's really new and interesting,” said Bruno. “It might explain why certain sensations we find very relaxing or stressful.” I thought of a good back scratch, or, for some reason, the calming sensation of putting your bare hand into a plate of fresh pasta. The idea that primary sensory and motor areas in the brain have a part in to modifying internal states in such a prominent way has caused Bruno to question the very nature of these areas of the brain. 

“It's not clear to me—from our work, and from their work—that what we call motor cortex is really motor cortex,” he said. “Maybe the primary sensory cortex is doing something more than we thought. When I see results like these, I go, hm, maybe these areas aren’t so simple.” With this come implications for what’s currently known as “psychosomatic illness”—how the mind has an impact over organ functions. The name tends to have a bad connotation. The notion that this mind-body connection isn’t really real; that psychosomatic illnesses are “all in your head.” 

Elaborate connections like this would explain that, yes, it is all in your head. The fact that cortical areas in the brain that have multi-synaptic connections that control organ function could strip the negative connotations. The Pitt team has previously injected the heart and seen cortical areas that are involved in controlling its rhythm. They believe that may explain cases of sudden unexpected death—from epilepsy, from brain injury, even from strong emotional stimuli (positive and negative) leading to heart attacks. There is also the emerging field of neuro-immunology, which is looking at the effects of stress on the immune system. All of this lends some credence to people who may once have been dismissed by people like Strick himself, who are skeptical of anything that isn’t borne out by a concrete mechanism. As he put it, “How we move, think, and feel have an impact on the stress response through real neural connections.”"

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