Interview with Professor Amy Arnsten PhD.

In this column, I ask neuroscience professors from around the world five questions related to stress, anxiety and how the COVID-19 pandemic affects us. Read on to learn more about the neuroscience behind your stress and how you can alleviate it.

Interview with Professor Amy Arnsten PhD.

Albert E. Kent Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Psychology; Member, Kavli Institute of Neuroscience at Yale University

She received her B.A. in Neuroscience from Brown University in 1976, and her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from UCSD in 1981. She did post-doctoral research with Dr. Susan Iversen at Cambridge University in the UK, and with Dr. Patricia Goldman-Rakic at Yale.

In 2008, Arnsten received the Distinguished Investigator Award from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, to further her research on the neurobiology of mental illness. In 2013, she was given the National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award in recognition of her groundbreaking research. In 2015, she won the Goldman-Rakic Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Cognitive Neuroscience from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.

1. What are the main topics and goals of your research?

I study how molecular mechanisms alter the functioning of the higher brain circuits that mediate cognition, including the “top-down” regulation of emotion. Much of this research has focused on the newly evolved prefrontal cortex, which provides top-down regulation of thought, action and emotion. We have learned how even a mild uncontrollable stress can initiate molecular signaling pathways that disconnect prefrontal synapses and take prefrontal cortex “off-line”, while the same stress chemicals can strengthen the funcitoning of more primitive brain circuits. Thus, we rapidly flip from a reflective to a reflexive brain state. This can save your life if you are cut off while driving om the highway, but can be harmful when you need higher functions to survive. For example, it takes prefrontal function to realize that touching a friend who looks perfectly healthy might actually give you covid- it is a very abstract function that involves seeing something that is not there (the virus) and planning for a healthier future- both prefrontal functions. 

2. How do specifically teenagers’ brains react to a stressful situation like this pandemic?  

Basic science suggests that teenagers may have a larger stress response, as they may have more dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, one of the chemicals released during stress that weakens prefrontal connections. Thus, they may be more vulnerable.

3. What can a person do to alleviate this stress and anxiety with this knowledge of the neurological causes? 

Decades of research has shown that a key aspect is whether the subject feels control over the stressor- a sense of control lessens the stress response and keeps the prefrontal cortex online. So doing things that help you feel more in control can be helpful- including learning the neuroanatomy!

4. What is the neuroscience behind the rise of anxiety and grief in teenagers during quarantine? 

When we feel afraid (stressed and out of control) the activation of primitive brain circuits such as the amygdala can make us feel anxious and sad, especially when the prefrontal cortex is weakened and is less able to inhibit amygdala activity. Seniors locked in nursing homes are even more vulnerable to this, as they often feel in such danger and feel very helpless. this is a very natural biological response. 

5. How does society contribute to additional stress and confusion with so much information going around? 

Hearing the same information over and over, in a very emotional context, is often not helpful, as you are not learning anything new but you are taking in a lot of emottion. So best to limit your news intake to reliable sources, and be on the lookout for scams. 

Bonus question: What is your advice to a teenager who wants to learn more about neuroscience?

I just posted a Youtube video on how the brain reacts to stressors like covid-19 at the Yale Med School channel:
Link: The Brain’s Response to Stress – How Our Brains May Be Altered During the COVID-19 Pandemic