Metz’s model of Parkinson’s Disease is transient, and typically, the motor abilities of rats that receive the chemical lesion will spontaneously improve over time. But the researchers showed that even a moderate amount of stress can be harmful: animals with increased corticosterone levels – whether momentarily boosted by stressful environments, or chronically elevated by hormone injection – had continued difficulty with the skilled reaching task, long after the other animals had recovered.
Utilizing eye-opening studies like these, doctors and physicians are learning that stress is more than an emotional problem, deeper than a fleeting mental encumbrance. Our brains constantly rewire themselves throughout our lives, and are strongly driven by experiences, both positive and negative. And it seems that in certain situations, stress is an antagonist that can indeed leave an indelible mark on our brains.
But in stark contrast to the doom-and-gloom we’re accustomed to hearing about Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – disheartening research results, or news clips of drug trials where the latest molecular kryptonite has yet again failed – these reports highlight an environmental component of neurodegenerative disease that can, for once, be controlled. Just as many with high cholesterol levels now take preemptive action to stave off heart disease, one day people may use their APOE status, for instance, to make other necessary positive changes in their lives.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com