One new study suggests it might be possible. Jaideep Bains, a professor of psychology and pharmacology at the Cumming School of Medicine’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) at the University of Calgary, wanted to know if just being around someone that has recently been stressed would change their brain as well. It turns out that answer might be yes.
Using male and female mice for the experiment, researchers from Bain’s team removed one mouse from their partner and exposed them to mild stressors. They were then returned to their partner. The team looked at CRH neurons, which affect the brain’s response to stress, in those partners. As Toni-Lee Sterley, a postdoctoral associate and the study’s lead author puts it:
What was remarkable was that CRH neurons from the partners, who were not themselves exposed to an actual stress, showed changes that were identical to those we measured in the stressed mice. These neurons create a chemical “alarm pheromone” that is passed along from mouse to mouse to alert them of potential danger.
The mechanism for delivering this information is olfaction, predominantly smelling anal glands (which might hint at why dogs are so adamant about butt sniffing). The team also “silenced” CRH neurons in the partners’ brains with a lighting technique. Amazingly, the stress was not transferred.
Bains believes such a signaling technique might be prevalent in another social animal: humans. While we default to ambiguous terminology like “intuition,” this might be part of an evolutionary signaling system altering others to pending threats. As the authors write, information provided during this exchange neurologically primes your tribe for a challenge.
How this affects long-term behavior is yet to be known. As Bains says of this research:
It doesn’t really matter whether it’s your stress or somebody else’s. A transmitted stress changes the brain in the exact same way as a real stress. From an evolutionary perspective, we think these types of signals were likely critical in the formation of social groups.
This is good news for those who think they “pick something up” from a partner or friend. Yet if your friend is always stressed—if they spend too much time on Twitter, perhaps—you might have to question the value of the friendship, unless you’re able to successfully assimilate all of that stress. As the authors conclude, these neurons might explain why some people develop PTSD just from learning about traumatic events others have endured.
We already know smiling is contagious. Chronic stress is not nearly as useful a contagion. If you think you can manage without affecting others, you’re probably wrong. Our feelings always influence those around us. We’re now closer to chemical proof of this long-felt assertion.
International Conference on Central Nervous System and Therapeutics
Dates &Venue: October 1-3, 2018