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Strengthening Resilience in the Brain

From the NICABM Blog:

What interventions could rewire the brain in mature adults, particularly those who grew up in less than ideal circumstances?

Are there ways to help restore or strengthen resilience?

One of my favorite neuroscientists is Dr. Bruce McEwen. He serves as Head of Neuroendocrinology Research at Rockefeller University in New York, and I find his work fascinating.

Dr. McEwen recently published a paper that provides an overview of some of the most recent developments to date in brain science. He was especially interested in the impact of childhood stress on brain development and the interventions that worked best with mature adults.

In essence, he wanted to know which evidence-based practices could rewire the brain in a way that might restore or strengthen resilience.

According to Dr. McEwen, strategies ranging from cognitive-behavioral therapy to mindfulness, as well as physical activity have all been shown to be effective in changing the brain’s structure and function. He was also interested in programs that promote social support, social integration, and developing meaning and purpose in life.

I was particularly interested in what McEwen had to say about increasing social integration and support as a way of decreasing the cumulative effect of stress on our bodies (what he refers to as “allostatic load”).

McEwen cites programs like the Experience Corps that create volunteer opportunities for people 50 years and older. These experiences provide
cognitive challenges as well as increased physical activity, both of which have been shown to slow the decline of physical and mental health and to improve prefrontal cortical blood flow.

Dr. McEwen also highlighted several studies that, once again, emphasize the benefit of physical activity. For example, walking for 1 hour, 5 days a week can significantly change the size of the hippocampus (that’s the part of the brain that plays a role in connecting short-term and long-term memory).

All in all, the take home message is encouraging, due to the remarkable power of neuroplasticity in the brain. You see, research continues to confirm the immense ability we have to promote brain growth and healing throughout our lives.

If you’d like to take a look at the paper in its entirety, you can find “Recognizing Resilience: Learning from the Effects of Stress on the Brain” in the January 2015 edition ofNeurobiology of Stress.

And if you’re interested in learning more about practical, effective strategies for strengthening the brain, I hope you’ll check out the Brain-Smart webinar series. The webinars are free to watch at the time of broadcast – you just need to sign up.

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