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Brain reserve and protection against cognitive decline

MS researchers have found brain reserve and cognitive reserve confer long-term protective effect against cognitive decline. Dr. Sumowski presented this research recently at the 2014 American Academy of Neurology's (AAN's) 66th Annual Meeting (conference) in Philadelphia. Last year one study revealed that fish oil could help prevent cognitive decline among heavy drinkers, according to, the site,"Fish Oil Could Prevent Cognitive Decline in Heavy Drinkers." And this year, in another study by different scientists, multiple sclerosis researchers have found that brain reserve and cognitive reserve confer a long-term protective effect against cognitive decline. A new study, "Brain reserve and cognitive reserve protect against cognitive decline over 4.5 years in MS," published online April 18, 2014 in the journal Neurology confirms prior research and shows that effects persist for years.

Brain reserve and protection against cognitive decline.
Anne Hart, photography and book.

“Our research aims to answer these questions,” explained Dr. DeLuca, according to the April 30, 2014 news release, MS researchers find brain & cognitive reserve protect long-term against cognitive decline. “Why do some people with MS experience disabling symptoms of cognitive decline, while others maintain their cognitive abilities despite neuroimaging evidence of significant disease progression? Can the theories of brain reserve and cognitive reserve explain this dichotomy? Can we identify predictors of cognitive decline?”

Intellectual enrichment is cognitive reserve along with brain volume

In this study, memory, cognitive efficiency, vocabulary (a measure of intellectual enrichment/cognitive reserve), brain volume (a measure of brain reserve), and disease progression on MRI, were evaluated in 40 patients with MS at baseline and at 4.5-year follow-up. After controlling for disease progression, scientists looked at the impact of brain volume and intellectual enrichment on cognitive decline.

Results supported the protective effects of brain reserve and cognitive reserve,” noted Dr. Sumowski. “Patients with greater intellectual enrichment experienced lesser degrees of cognitive decline. Those with greater brain reserve showed a protective effect for cognitive efficiency. This study not only confirms these protective effects of brain and cognitive reserve, it shows that these beneficial effects persist for years.”

Dr. Sumowski is a research scientist in Neuropsychology & Neuroscience Research, under the directorship of Nancy Chiaravalloti, PhD. John DeLuca, PhD, is senior VP of Research and Training at the Kessler Foundation. Drs. Sumowski and DeLuca are on the faculty of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School.

The study is partially supported by a grant from the Ministry of Science, Republic of Serbia (Project number: 175031). Dr. Sumowski was funded in part by the NIH (R00 HD060765).

Authors of the study are: Sumowski JF, Rocca MA, Leavitt VM, Dackovic J, Mesaros S, Drulovic J, Deluca J, Filippi M. James Sumowski, PhD, lead author of the article, and John DeLuca, PhD, are at Kessler Foundation. Co-authors are from the Manhattan Memory Center, New York, NY, the San Raffaele Scientific Institute, Milan, Italy, and the University of Belgrade, Serbia. Neurology is the official journal of the American Academy of Neurology. Dr. Sumowski presented these findings at the AAN 2014 confernece in Philadelphia.

Like yawns, people catch stress just from watching it, real or in the movies

You may wish to check out the abstract of a recent study, "Cortisol increase in empathic stress is modulated by social closeness and observation modality." It's published online in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, since April 17, 2014. Authors are Engert, V., Plessow, F., Miller, R., Kirschbaum, C., and Singer, T.

Merely observing stressful situations can trigger a physical stress response. Your stress is my stress, says a new study. Merely observing stressful situations can trigger a physical stress response. If you're habitually watching stressful situations on TV, in movies, in games, or on those talk shows where a family counselor deals with very troubled, stressed people on TV programs, you're also stressing your own body, particularly your heart, brain, and other organs, raising your blood pressure, and prematurely aging out your arteries.

How many people watch programs that only make them laugh as compared to reality TV presenting stressful situations or bad news on the news each day or evening? On the other hand, how your perceive stress is how it will affect you, and the only way to know is the measure your physiology such as stress levels, blood pressure, heart rate and other signs that the stress you're watching is stressing you and damaging your health or putting wear and tear on your body just by watching.

Empathic stress can happen without you actually realizing you're being stressed

Stress is contagious. Observing another person in a stressful situation can be enough to make our own bodies release the stress hormone cortisol. This is the conclusion reached by scientists involved in a large-scale cooperation project between the departments of Tania Singer at the Max-Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and Clemens Kirschbaum at the Technische Universität Dresden.

Empathic stress arose primarily when the observer and stressed individual were partners in a couple relationship and the stressful situation could be directly observed through a one-way mirror. However, even the observation of stressed strangers via video transmission was enough to put some people on red alert. In our stress-ridden society, empathic stress is a phenomenon that should not be ignored by the health care system.

Stress is a major health threat in today’s society

It causes a range of psychological problems like burnout, depression and anxiety. Even those who lead relatively relaxed lives constantly come into contact with stressed individuals. Whether at work or on television: someone is always experiencing stress, and this stress can affect the general environment in a physiologically quantifiable way through increased concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol.

“The fact that we could actually measure this empathic stress in the form of a significant hormone release was astonishing,” says Veronika Engert, according to the April 30, 2014 news release, "Your stress is my stress." Engert is one of the study’s first authors. “There must be a transmission mechanism via which the target’s state can elicit a similar state in the observer down to the level of a hormonal stress response.“

This is particularly true considering that many studies experience difficulties to induce firsthand stress to begin with. The authors found that empathic stress reactions could be independent of (“vicarious stress”) or proportional to (“stress resonance”) the stress reactions of the actively stressed individuals.

Mental arithmetic tasks and interviews also are stressful

During the stress test, the test subjects had to struggle with difficult mental arithmetic tasks and interviews, while two supposed behavioral analysts assessed their performance. Only five percent of the directly stressed test subjects managed to remain calm; the others displayed a physiologically significant increase in their cortisol levels.

In total, 26 percent of observers who were not directly exposed to any stress whatsoever also showed a significant increase in cortisol. The effect was particularly strong when observer and stressed individual were partners in a couple relationship (40 percent). However, even when watching a complete stranger, the stress was transmitted to ten percent of the observers. Accordingly, emotional closeness is a facilitator but not a necessary condition for the occurrence of empathic stress.

When the observers watched the events directly through a one-way mirror, 30 percent of them experienced a stress response: Stress is contagious

Even presenting the stress test only virtually via video transmission was sufficient to significantly increase the cortisol levels of 24 percent of the observers. “This means that even television programs depicting the suffering of other people can transmit that stress to viewers,” says Engert, according to the news release. “Stress has enormous contagion potential.”

Stress becomes a problem primarily when it is chronic. “A hormonal stress response has an evolutionary purpose, of course. When you are exposed to danger, you want your body to respond with an increase in cortisol,” explains Engert, according to the news release. “However, permanently elevated cortisol levels are not good. They have a negative impact on the immune system and neurotoxic properties in the long term.”

Individuals working as caregivers or the family members of chronically stressed individuals have an increased risk to suffer from the potentially harmful consequences of empathic stress. Anyone who is confronted with the suffering and stress of another person, particularly when sustained, has a higher risk of being affected by it themselves.

Caregivers may be chronically stressed

The results of the study also debunked a common prejudice: men and women actually experience empathic stress reactions with equal frequency. “In surveys however, women tend to assess themselves as being more empathic compared to men’s self-assessments. This self-perception does not seem to hold if probed by implicit measures”

Future studies are intended to reveal exactly how the stress is transmitted and what can be done to reduce its potentially negative influence on society. If you're caring for someone for a length of time, you can become chronically stressed. But not everyone can afford the cost of respite such as adult day care for someone with mental issues or dementia or a visiting caregiver that allows the usual caregiver to someone confined to the home to have some time away from the caring duties of a loved one.

You also may wish to check out, "Celebration of compassion." It's a unique multimedia eBook that presents various scientists’, practitioners’, and therapists’ experiences. Or see, "Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior."