According to a recent Yale study, a person’s ability to handle stress could be due to flexibility in the brain.

Researchers at the Yale Stress Center examined how the brain reacts to ongoing stress in 30 adult participants in the New Haven community. With the goal of identifying brain loci and neural networks specific to certain stress processes, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, while participants were shown either stressful or neutral images. The researchers then compared the brain scans with participants’ self-reported data on their coping strategies of stress, including eating habits and alcohol intake, and found a correlation between a lack of dynamic or “flexible” brain activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or vmPFC, and maladaptive coping strategies. According to the researchers, the study can be used to make targeted neurological interventions for several damaging stress-related illnesses. The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month.

“We wanted to understand how the brain handles stress from a coping perspective,” said Rajita Sinha, professor of psychiatry, neuroscience and child study and the study’s first author. “People are facing high levels of stress and trauma and there is a range of responses people have in coping with stress. Some are managing and are adaptive and others are barely surviving.”

Co-author and psychiatry professor Dongju Seo said it is important to study the ongoing effects of stress because it is a major factor that triggers both psychiatric and physiological disorders. Seo added that in real life, individuals experience continuous stress, not just stress that overwhelms them in “brief moments.” She said this study was unique in that it did not create a stressful environment or image in the brain for just a few moments, but instead examined the effects of ongoing stress on the brain by presenting ongoing, acute stressful images to subjects.

In the past, researchers have established how the brain and body responds to stress. For example, according to Sinha, the amygdala is important in alerting and signaling negative emotions in response to stress and the hippocampus is important in matching incoming stimuli with existing memories. However, this study was the first to image the brain’s response to acute, continuous stress. Sinha and her team of researchers discovered three distinct response patterns to stress in the brain among participants, as well as what seems to be a neural network related to control of coping strategies.

According to Sinha, the first neural network of brain activity signals and alerts the brain in response to incoming, potentially harmful stimuli. The second pattern of neural activity decreases feelings of distress and the third is related to coping and choosing responses to incoming stimuli that doesn’t simply take care of stress in the moment but is better for a person’s long-term health. Sinha said that with the knowledge of these three patterns of neural activity, it could be possible to target and manipulate specific brain networks to see if they are involved in increasing resilience to stress and have clinical intervention of mental illnesses specific to those brain areas.

“We can try to make people more neural flexible — the ability of the brain to actively process and adapt based on information — to cope with stress in a better way. There are number of stress-related illnesses — anxiety disorders, depression — we can use these kinds of paradigms to test the nature of the three stress networks for specific illnesses and target intervention based on that,” Sinha said.

Sinha’s research also led to finding a neural network related to emotional and behavioral control. According to Sinha, it has been known that if a person is able to feel in control of a situation, he or she could perceive that control as the ability to manage stress. Consequently, Sinha said, the impact of stress on the body is “buffered” by that perception of control. The researchers found one locus of this network of control in the vmPFC showing dynamic neural activation associated with real-life coping behaviors.

In imaging the brain’s response to ongoing, stressful images — including a mutilated, bloody body and a person being shot — the researchers were able to correlate brain scans to both participants’ levels of stress and their real-life coping strategies. The researchers measured participants’ heart rate and cortisol levels before and after both the stressful and neutral images. Separately, individuals did a self-report of emotional behaviors, eating behavior, and alcohol intake, allowing the researchers to correlate maladaptive coping behaviors with the fMRI scans. Sinha emphasized the importance of neural flexibility in resilience to, and coping with, stress.

“One piece of a network seems to be involved in active coping. More importantly, it shows us how active the brain is and that a key feature of brain is flexibility; we were able to show that there is active, changing signaling in the brain,” Sinha said.

Seo said they also found that the brain is dynamic in its responses to stress and can recover from it. She added that this idea of resilience and recovery could be an indication of brain adaptation and could even be used in pharmacology for different illnesses.

Conor Liston, a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College’s Brain and Mind Research Institute who was not involved in the study, said the research builds on a number of studies of neuroimaging in animal models and how the animal models respond to and cope with stress. He said that the study was original in how it looked at dynamic brain changes over time and that its findings were consistent with what is currently know about the vmPFC in animal models.

Rebecca Shansky, a psychology professor at Northeastern University who was not involved in the study, said that while the data is not surprising, the novelty of the study is in its analysis. Shansky said that it would be interesting to find a causality — and not simply a correlation — between real-life, active coping strategies and stimulation of the vmPFC. Shansky also said she would be interested in seeing gender differences in responses to stress.

Sinha founded the Yale Stress Center in 2007.