FENS 2020: what impact has stress from the coronavirus pandemic had on the brain?

Written by Georgi Makin (Future Science Group)

Social distancing and isolation have characterized many countries’ approaches to reducing the spread of coronavirus, depriving many of opportunities for contact essential for wellbeing and mental health. At the FENS Virtual Forum of Neuroscience (11–15 July), Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg (Central Institute of Mental Health, Mannheim, Germany) discussed the impact of the stress experienced by the brain during enforced isolation, considering the amplified economic and social conditions unique to the coronavirus pandemic.

Following investigations surrounding the brain’s response to interactions between genetic and environmental risk factors, Meyer-Lindberg emphasized the importance of vigilance in monitoring adverse impacts on mental health under abnormal social conditions (e.g., the coronavirus pandemic).

“Humans are social creatures and so social isolation is a form of chronic stress which has a negative impact on hormonal and immune systems leading to mental and physical illness, such as cardiovascular disease,” Meyer-Lindenberg explained.

“The bigger our social networks, the better we can cope with adverse situations. The size of these networks predicts the size of the cingulate cortex, which becomes bigger,” Meyer-Lindenberg added.

An area inciting further investigation within social neuroscience, the cingulate cortex interacts with the amygdala and hippocampus. This circuit is reported to be impacted heavily by risk genes for depression among other psychiatric disorders.

A larger social network could lead to a reduced risk of death by around 50%, Meyer-Lindenberg further explained. There are reportedly approximately one-third of Americans and one-quarter of Europeans experiencing loneliness at any one time, elevating their risk of depression, suicide and dementia.

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The size of a social network can be influenced by many different factors. A key determinant, Meyer-Lindberg argues, is based on geography. Those residing in the city are reportedly 20–40% more likely to develop anxiety or mood disorders when compared to their counterparts residing in the countryside, especially within populations with lower socio-economic status.

In previous investigations performed in 2019, Meyer-Lindenberg concluded that access to green spaces improved ‘sense of wellbeing’. One investigation identified a correlation between the time spent in parks and green spaces with emotional wellbeing in a cohort of 33 young adults living in Mannheim.

The second stage extended the experiment to 53 young adults, utilizing neuroimaging techniques to monitor responses to angry or fearful facial images, reportedly linking the benefits of access to green spaces to brain activation during the processing of negative social-emotional cues. Meyer-Lindenberg thus suggested that the results contributed to evidence suggesting the value of the experience of nature on mental health.

“We are learning more about which environmental components influence brain structures that could protect against mental illness or increase the risk,” explained Professor Meyer-Lindenberg.

“We know that the brain responds positively to green space, so giving all people equal access to parks and nature within cities is important, if challenging. Our desire for green space could have evolutionary roots when humans naturally sought an area with trees, water and fertile land on which to live.”

It is predicted that by 2050, approximately two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in cities and urban environments depending on changes to different economies, the climate and migration patterns.

Meyer-Lindenberg concluded: “The rapid urbanization has far-reaching implications for society, public health and policy makers, and therefore also provides great opportunities to improve the human environment.”

Source: FENS. The stressful effects of COVID and urban living on the brain. Press release:https://forum2020.fens.org