March 5, 2010

What We Can Learn From Rats

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“Actually, she still has a uterus.” It’s the only phrase I remember from that morning, and embarrassment was the only emotion I felt that morning. My head felt like concrete and I just wanted to sleep. In fact, I hadn’t slept in nearly two days. In the haze of sleep deprivation, I had misread my patient’s chart and thought that she had an operation in which her uterus was removed. However, as the chief resident pointed out dryly, the patient’s uterus was where it had always been. How could I have made such a mistake? Stress was destroying my normally smart, well-put-together personality.

Turns out I didn’t handle the stress any better than a lab rat. My usually meticulous nature had been whittled down to carelessness, a response not unlike that of chronically stressed rats, which perform poorly in tasks that require shifting attention. “It’s the same with humans,” says Conor Liston, a psychiatry resident and former Weill Cornell MD/PhD student who studied stress in rats and medical students for his PhD thesis. He found that, compared to the brains of non-stressed rats, certain neurons in the brains of stressed rats shrink and form fewer connections as a result of repeated stress. Dr. Liston’s subsequent studies on stressed out med students showed that male students studying for the medical licensing exam have similar brain changes and difficulties with attention shifting. The experiment involved a task that required students to pick between two circles based either on the circle’s color or motion. Changing the instruction — for example, being asked to pick the red circle while ignoring the motion of the circles — required a shift in attention from motion to color, and those students who said they were more stressed out had a more difficult time adjusting to the new instruction. Imaging of the same students’ brains revealed a disruption in the regions involved in controlling attention. Fortunately for the future doctors (and their patients), after the exam and a month off, both behavioral and brain changes were reversed. Now apply this research to yourself: Once you turn in your paper or finish the exam, do you still stress about the pending results you can no longer change, or do you allow yourself to relax? Learn from the rats and med students, and let your neurons recover!

These similarities between stressed rats and students are remarkable, and Cornell students can learn quite a few lessons from the rodents. Studies on rats and mice suggest that short-term and mild stress is good, and even necessary, for optimal performance. In one study, rats that were forced to swim before running a maze made fewer mistakes compared to the rats that were not stressed prior to the maze. An impending exam can be similarly stressful, or stimulating, for the average undergrad. What would seem to be negative change, such as an impairment in the ability to shift your attention, may actually be good in the short term, allowing you to focus and to produce your best work — like the rat that runs the maze better after being dunked in water. However, as soon as the stress becomes prolonged — when you continue to worry about the results of an exam even after it’s over, for example — the changes your body makes to cope with the stress become more detrimental than beneficial. It’s no wonder that chronic stress is a well-known risk factor for depression and other major psychiatric illnesses.

Sometimes, like a rat stuck in a cage, you can’t do much about your situation and you need help coping with your stress. Dealing with catastrophic events, mental and chronic illness, and major life changes can seem insurmountable. Knowing when to get help takes insight, which is something that is in short supply when entrenched in the details of your problems. When you feel so stressed-out that you are unable to function as you used to, or when you feel that your relationships are suffering, it is time to reach out to someone who can help you to look beyond the cage. The volunteers at EARS are available to talk through whatever is on your mind and can be a first point of contact to help you identify your issues and refer you to resources on and off campus. For me, it took a blunder about my patient’s uterus for me to realize that I needed help. With a new handle on my life, I’m off to run the rat race of medical school!

Need help coping with stress? Try these campus resources:

EARS counselors can be reached by calling 255-EARS or stopping in their office at 213 Willard Straight Hall for free, confidential counseling.

Cornell Minds Matters holds free workshops to help students relieve stress. Try Positive Psychology, Writing Through the Rough Spots or Creatively Coping with Stress. See their website for more info:

The Cornell Learning Strategies Center can help with study skills, time management, procrastination and specific tutoring for courses,

Let’s Talk provide professional, confidential, short term counseling for free at numerous sites around campus,

Academic Advising and Students Services Offices in each college at Cornell can help with suggestions on how to relieve stress.

— Compiled by Casey Carr, Advisor to Cornell Mind Matters

Original Author: Lakshmi Swamy