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ACRM is committed to keeping on top of the latest news in rehabilitation research and sharing our knowledge with our community of doctors, nurses, and other interdisciplinary members of rehabilitation teams across the world. 

Following our blog is a great way to find content related to chronic disabling conditions such as brain injury, spinal cord injury, stroke, neurodegenerative diseases, pain, cancer, neuroplasticity, and more. We also cover more general and accessible topics in rehabilitation research, and in today’s blog we’ll be discussing a new study from ETH Zurich on what stress does to the brain. Continue reading to learn more and consider joining ACRM to stay on top of rehabilitation research news.

Stress and the Brain

Stress is a great example of how we should be thinking of the body holistically as rehabilitation researchers. Just like a TBI injury affects a person’s ability to walk, stress triggers reactions in the mind, body, and even the microbiome. And stress is unavoidable in modern life. 

You’ve probably heard of the classic example of zebra fleeing the lion, then calming down immediately after. It’s the central example and metaphor in Robert M. Sapolsky’s bestselling 1994 book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Like zebras, humans are built to handle acute stress (lions) but our bodies are not as good at handling chronic stress.

Chronic stress affects the whole body and changes the brain’s structure and function. Stress causes an overproduction of myelin, which can lead to an imbalance between gray and white matter. These brain abnormalities have been observed in people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and can cause lasting changes in brain structure. Stress also kills brain cells and shrinks the size of the brain. Areas of the brain that are affected include regions associated with the regulation of emotions, metabolism, and memory. 

Stress, particularly stress caused by a traumatic event, can cause memory loss. Traumatic events like a car crash can cause those that were involved to forget the event. And those who have been victims of childhood abuse can forget the abuse even happened until years later. Less traumatic, chronic, daily stress can also have a negative impact on your short term memory. Those suffering from stress have challenges with recalling where objects, like car keys, are in space.

Study At ETH Zurich

Two ETH Zurich research teams, lead by Johannes Bohacek and Nicole Wenderoth, have been studying the role of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline on the brain. The experiment used real-time MRI scans of the brains of sedated mice to see what happened as they triggered noradrenaline release from the locus coeruleus. 

The locus coeruleus is located in the pons of the brainstem and is involved with physiological responses to stress and pain, and understanding how it affects other areas of the brain and body is vital in understanding what stress does to the brain.


This study has shown that selective noradrenaline actually re-wired the connectivity patterns between different areas of the brain. The effects of stress on the mice are strikingly similar to how humans react to stress, such as increased activity in the visual and auditory centers of the brain.

Overall, the study demonstrates that using MRI technology in animal studies can reveal correlations that allow us to understand brain functions in humans. The implications for rehabilitation research are huge. In the future, we will hopefully be able to use similar techniques to diagnose hyperactivity of the noradrenaline system. This will help us better understand, and hopefully treat, anxiety, panic disorders, and PTSD. 

To learn more about this study, you can read the featured article on Neuroscience News here. You can also find the press release and summary of the study here on ETH Zurich news. The full study is available in the journal Neuron and requires a subscription to access.


The ACRM interdisciplinary Neuroplasticity Networking Group is a wonderful resource for those interested in new rehabilitation research and information about neuroplasticity.
The ACRM conference is another great way to network with colleagues and keep up with the latest trend in rehabilitation medicine. Add to the discussion today and help change the lives of people living with disabilities. If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in joining our Health Services Research Networking Group.

Join ACRM today to contribute to the conversation and research surrounding chronic stress.