Humans are amazingly adaptable animals and it all starts in our brains. We can go through incredibly traumatic experiences, and thanks to our brains’ plasticity (ability to adapt to a changing environment), we survive them to face other traumas without undue fear. The study by British researchers found that there is a mechanism in our brains which can turn emotional response on or off so that traumas do not develop into a post-traumatic stress disorder.
Researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School found that very stressful events have the ability to re-program receptors in the amygdala (the emotional centre of the brain.) This reprogramming affects how we will react to the next, similar traumatic event. This is the first study that discovered the exact mechanism that protects us from pathological fear and anxiety, which might lead to mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
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The receptors in the brain, called PAR1 or protease-activated receptor, act as an emotional command centre. Before some traumatic event, amygdala neurons remain active and produce emotions based on our experiences. After a traumatic event, PAR1 tell neurons to stop producing emotions, to keep our fear under control so that we do not develop too strong fear to even the mildest triggers. Without this mechanism, every traumatic experience we have would cause us to react in fear at even the smallest trigger and would make us unable to function at all.
When things go wrong
When this protective mechanism is switched off, by some genetic anomaly or some other cause, we develop metal disorders such as depression and anxiety. While the study was done on mice, scientists are planning on continuing to investigate what can cause the PAR1 to become defective. Their findings open a whole new field of potential new therapies that can be particularly beneficial to people who went through particularly traumatic experiences, such wars, atrocities and violent crimes.