It appears that University of Pittsburgh researchers have uncovered an anatomical connection between mind and body. They are hopeful that these findings will help illuminate the influence stress, depression, and other mental conditions have on organ function.
A Web of Connectivity
The findings, presented in the online Early Edition of the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), suggest a possible physiological explanation for the mind-body connection and for why movement therapies such as yoga, pilates, and tai chi exert a palliative effect on stress and other anxiety-related conditions.
University of Pittsburgh researchers investigated the neural networks between the adrenal medulla and the brain. Prior to the research, scientists thought one or two pathways controlled the response of the adrenal medulla to stress. Researchers were shocked by the results of this latest study, which revealed a vast number of neural networks linking the adrenal medulla to the cerebral cortex and other regions of the brain.
The Adrenal Medulla and Its Cerebral Cortex Connection
The adrenal medulla makes up the inner part of the adrenal glands, which are located just above the kidneys and help control hormone output and the body’s stress response. The adrenal medulla helps a person handle the stressors life delivers on a daily basis.
This latest study reveals that the adrenal medulla is connected to and controlled by many different cortical areas of the brain, particularly regions such as the cerebral cortex (the largest part of the brain) that are responsible for higher cognitive functions, including thought and action. For instance, stress triggers the automatic fight-or-flight response—a racing heart, sweating…the desire to either flee or fight back. The cerebral cortex, on the other hand, activates a more nuanced response to stress…more of a think-before-we-react scenario, suggesting a physiological basis for our brain’s ability to help modulate our reactions to stressful situations.
The cerebral cortex is also involved in motor responses, such as planning and movement, which provides a possible explanation as to why exercises that help impact stress, such as yoga and tai chi, are so effective. Because they utilize motor skills like coordination, flexibility, and alignment, they are activating the cerebral cortex, which in turn connects to and influences the adrenal medulla and the stress response.
The researchers also discovered neural networks connecting the adrenal medulla to sections of the brain activated by conflict, parts of the brain that recognize when an error is made, and regions of the brain that are triggered during mindful meditation.
Senior author Peter L. Strick, Ph.D., Thomas Detre Chair of the Department of Neurobiology and scientific director of the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute, explains how these findings may help guide therapies for posttraumatic stress syndrome: “This observation raises the possibility that activity in these cortical areas when you re-imagine an error, or beat yourself up over a mistake, or think about a traumatic event, results in descending signals that influence the adrenal medulla in just the same way as the actual event.”