If you are caring for an elderly or ailing relative, you are not alone. Nearly one out of five American adults serves as a caregiver to a loved one—an elderly parent or in-law in almost half of cases but in other instances a spouse, a child or other relative who has become sick or disabled. As the population ages, even greater numbers of us will assume these duties. It can be a tough job, no matter how strong the bond between caregiver and receiver. Decades of research tally the toll: poorer health, financial sacrifice, depression and anxiety.
Many who are struggling with these familial duties may be unaware that caregiving is an active subject of research, replete with revelatory findings and research-based approaches that could lighten the load or at least make it easier to bear. In our cover story, “The Givers,” journalist Francine Russo walks us briskly through that research, introducing us to a variety of families along the way. Social scientists, she writes, “have identified specific strategies that can help caretakers manage the burdens and maximize the rewards of their role.” Russo also offers a tip box on how to manage stress.
Stress—and its biological effects—is itself a lively area of scientific inquiry. In an article by neuroscientist Debra A. Bangasser of Temple University, she describes surprising biological differences in how male and female animals respond to stress. These discoveries could help explain why women have far higher rates of such stress-related conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression than men do and why their reactions to drug treatment can differ. “In fact,” Bangasser says, “some of the most promising new therapies under investigation—including oxytocin for anxiety and ketamine for depression—appear to have very different effects in females than in males.”
Sex differences in neural activity are just part of our emerging understanding of the brain's complexity. Old binary notions that sleep and wakefulness are all-or-nothing conditions are falling by the wayside, as detailed in this issue's column by neuroscientist Christof Koch. The same is true for consciousness, where—as ethicist Joseph J. Fins and neurologist Nicholas D. Schiff demonstrate—investigators are finding more shades of awareness than we once knew. There is dazzling beauty and wonder in all this complexity. For proof, I invite you to explore our extraordinary photo gallery, “The Art of Neuroscience.”