Stress may harm brain - but it recovers
September 3rd, 2012
03:00 PM ET

Stress may harm brain - but it recovers

We all know stress is bad for you, but just how bad?

It would be unethical to intentionally subject people to extreme psychological duress in the name of science. But ongoing military operations offer opportunities to see what happens to people exposed to stressful situations.

Researchers in the Netherlands found the brains of soldiers who go into combat show impairment in function and structure upon returning, but that these effects largely go away over time.

The study
A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at 33 healthy Dutch soldiers deployed to Afghanistan for four months. It was the first military deployment for all of them, part of a NATO peacekeeping operation.

Researchers compared these participants to 26 soldiers who were never deployed.

The soldiers who were deployed experienced armed combat and exposure to enemy fire, as well as other common combat stressors. But this did not appear to aggravate stress symptoms; researchers did not find significant differences in post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and mood scores between the deployed and non-deployed groups.

But despite no apparent trends in psychological symptoms, the two groups of participants did display marked brain differences.

The combat group showed reduced functioning in the midbrain, as well as structural differences in that area. These soldiers who had gone to Afghanistan tended to perform worse on cognitive tests than those who were not deployed.


Those effects were seen less than two months after the soldiers returned from combat.

But a year and a half later, researchers found that the soldiers who had been deployed had, on average, returned to normal with respect to both brain structure and cognitive performance.

The combat group still showed some brain impairment: Imaging tests showed that there was less connectivity between particular brain regions among these soldiers than those who had not been deployed.

"Although there are some subtle changes, it doesn't really directly translate into impaired performance," said Guido van Wingen of the Brain Imaging Center in Amsterdam, who was the lead author of the study.

Although cognitive performance may suffer, a different brain function may be enhanced in soldiers with recent combat experience: vigilance. Previous research from van Wingen's group shows that the amygdala, a part of the brain important for detecting potential danger, has heightened activity in soldiers who have returned recently from combat. That effect also normalizes over time.

Study drawbacks

The sample size of the study began small, and got smaller over time. Nine people from the combat group and nine people from the non-deployed group did not complete the long-term follow-up.

Also, this study deals only with people from the Netherlands.


The research is too preliminary to make recommendations, van Wingen said.

But it makes sense that soldiers would benefit from time to recuperate in between deployments, so that the brain can re-adapt to a non-combat situation, he said.

Bottom line

"What the results collectively show is the brain is able to restore (itself) from the adverse effects of stress, if you give it at least enough time," van Wingen said.

More from the Chart: City stress may be bad for brain

soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. Chick-a-dee

    As a lay person, I have no credentials on which to support my hypothesis. i wonder, however, if anyone in the field of neurology is investigating long-term exposure to stress as the cause of, rather than just an aggravation to multiple sclerosis. This article is another disparate clue linking physical changes in the brain to stress. anecdotally, all the MS patients with whom I've spoken have indicated high stress in early life either externally or self inflicted. Anyone know of any study being conducted?

    September 3, 2012 at 15:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kcredpixy

      I don't know of a study with multiple sclerosis but multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disorder and I do know of studies with other autoimmune disorders that have tied them directly to psychological stress.

      September 4, 2012 at 11:27 | Report abuse |
    • grad student in neuro

      Stress has been repeatedly shown to exacerbate MS symptoms, but too date no consensus on wether it is the direct cause has been established. Dr. Ackerman, Dr. McEwan, Dr. Brown and Dr. Mohr are the big names involved in stress and MS research to date. Some interesting animal studies, but clinical studies are hard since it's hard to predict who will develop MS or not and would take years and years to do such a widespread, all encompassing trial to study. Additionally, Dr. Dhabhar and Dr. McEwan, have provided countless studies to support that acute stress can be an immunoenhancing, whereas chronic stress can be immunpsuppressing. This alteration on the immune system by the stress and disease may play a hand at the frequency, and maybe the cause of MS. But no conclusive results to date that I have found.

      September 4, 2012 at 14:44 | Report abuse |
  2. onyeka

    so in these case what should people do to stop stress?

    September 4, 2012 at 05:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Steven Martin

    i'll tell you what stresses me out.. working for people who use authority to cover up incompetence.

    September 4, 2012 at 08:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • chump

      Steve? THE Steve Martin? If so, wow.

      September 4, 2012 at 23:20 | Report abuse |
  4. J-Boogie

    I agree with Steve Martin.

    September 4, 2012 at 09:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Virginia Warner

    Have been looking on PNAS and can't find this article, could you provide the whole reference?

    September 4, 2012 at 09:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Researcher

      Just looked up the reference, I believe it's:
      van Wingen GA, Geuze E, Vermetten E, Fernández G, The neural consequences of combat stress: long-term follow-up. MOL PSYCHIATR 2012;17 (2):116-118

      CNN, nice job on providing limitations and bottom line when reporting research. Now please start giving the proper scientific citation
      (not just a hyperlink that may become outdated).

      September 4, 2012 at 10:20 | Report abuse |
  6. Portland tony

    It appears to me that short term moderate stress would improve one's coping skills. Your first time under enemy fire, your first public speech, even your first date tend to bring on a degree of stress, but as events are repeated, anxiety and stress seem to lesson as the mind brings coping mechanisms into play!

    September 4, 2012 at 10:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Portland tony

      That's lessen!

      September 4, 2012 at 10:16 | Report abuse |
    • cptsd

      i would think that would generally apply
      that would only depend on if the brain is given sufficient time and the knowledge and practice of coping mechanisms to handle the next crisis, which quite often and in fact generally, due to the environment as it is at any given point in history or time, is not readily or sufficiently available to handle the constant onslaught and abuse and neglect from ignorance and the way things are as it is ...
      if you think about ptsd, cptsd (complex ptsd) and the statement the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and then multiply that with the statement that the two strongest emotions are fear and love, and they are often regarded as one and the same as in the statement to the effect that my catholic teacher taught me the heart of love was fear, so i never went back ...
      then you can see that in all these statements there lies truths and perceptions that when truly multiplied onto the masses becomes the train wreck the world has always and forever been deemed to embrace ...

      so, there is such thing as too much of a good thing too if your on fears side, that'll come back to surely slap you in the face...as also always is ...

      September 8, 2012 at 02:02 | Report abuse |
  7. Ellen

    This study is much too limited to really say much of anything about resiliency. There is no disputing the fact that the brain does repair itself like any other organ in the body, given the unobstructed opportunity to do so. What could not be controlled for in this study was the situation most trauma victims find themselves in: ongoing stress due to misperception of their environment. Especially where children are concerned, once traumatized, their perception of what is happening to them is forever colored by the initial traumatizing event, and so their stress reaction becomes chronic and their brains are never given the space to recover. The vigilance noted in the study becomes hyper vigilance over time, an over-reaction to normal, everyday occurrences. When those children become adults, the pattern only continues throughout their lives. One would hope that appropriate intervention soon after the initial trauma would mediate the pattern, but how that actually plays out is difficult to measure, and an unfortunately small number of victim ever get the timely help that is needed.

    September 4, 2012 at 10:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • cptsd

      this is a very good comment and so true.
      but not just in children, also in adults. did they do the test after multiple deployments?
      also, just trying to get any kind of services with this type illness is setting yourself up for more trauma from the mental health, health, educational, legal, judicial, and political systems cuz they lead the masses and they sure as heck don't know what their doing, cuz if they did people like duke would make no money for their research of ptsd on veterans.
      vets – your real enemy is this.

      September 4, 2012 at 23:55 | Report abuse |
    • cptsd

      also this:
      because the researchers would lose money if they actually did understand this or any other illness to provide the right understanding for a cure and for health for the patient as well as the patients family, the society and world in general, everyone stays ignorant, the harm multiplies, the stress from the abuse, exploitation for research purposes, or political purposes as the case often is, discrimination, prejudice, cops who have ptsd beating people with ptsd up, etc., is devastating to the whole society, and is becoming the scourge of the earth in terms of the amount of damage that can be done. What if the president with his finger on the button gets mentally ill, or has ptsd, like bush did and the same ignorance prevails, all in the name of money for a few. there will only be a few left if any, and i assure you they too will develop ptsd when they view their destruction – or not. who are these people (re: individuals) who deem to have the power to destroy so many? why would the masses follow? and when they do not, you can bet your last dollar that the ptsd will become rampid cptsd and the whole thing will worsen and continue. of course, it behooves the ones with money to keep the ones without ignorant and part of the game ... so why be their quini pig or their puppet?

      September 5, 2012 at 01:15 | Report abuse |
    • cptsd

      also this:
      ms. obama demands diet drinks in schools, yet the artificial sweetners, owned by bush and co., actually cause brain damage and lead to mania, psychosis, and dieabeties. this is so bush and co. can stay wealthy and remain the choosen few to destroy the masses. if cnn would actually report the realities of what is going on, instead of being wanna be bush and co., which i'm wondering is also obama and whatshisnames true companies, than, we the masses would not have so many health issues and problems and traumas that lead to ptsd and cptsd from the ignorance, and the puppetry to the few with the money to destroy the masses – so that they can continue to feed into the few with the money with overpriced, unneeded nor wanted, and many times coerced through fear tactics medicine, health, and mental health practices. the industry is designed to thrive on sick people, so everyone will be required to be sick, its your patriotic duty (sic).

      September 5, 2012 at 01:40 | Report abuse |
  8. Seriously?

    "We all know stress is bad for you, but just how bad?"

    Awful, awful, awful. Stress is not "bad", it produces different brain patterns than not being stressed but that doesn't make it "bad". In fact stress is very important for learning. Without the stress-induced changes in the brain to facilitate learning we would all be as uneducated as the author of this article.

    September 4, 2012 at 18:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Barbara Wright

    I agree with Steve

    September 4, 2012 at 21:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. ma & pa

    We agree with Steve Martin and add ignorance to incompetence. And being allowed to live a peaceful existence with some ongoing creative endeavor of ones choice is helpful.

    September 4, 2012 at 22:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. cptsd

    ptsd questions:

    there should be no election until

    a. romney gives full explanation as to why it seriously looks like the towers were blown up from the bottom with massive explosive in the movie "zeigest" (or similar) currently available at places like netflix, which shows the towers in detail, and TRULY look like they are being blown up from the bottom, as well as attacked by airplanes at the top – was that to make sure the top fell with the bottom, or only done for cover up?

    b. obama needs to address the issues raised in "what would they do without us" also currently available at places like netflix and how he plans to deal with justice the answers given by romeney in a. above.

    until than, noone should vote. it could be a massive protest, just everyone refuse to vote until these questions are answered.

    September 5, 2012 at 02:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. cptsd

    if everyone refused to vote until the real questions are answered about the 911 bombings – the truly look like bombings and airplane attacks – it would be a very real, very easy, and very nonviolent show of patriotism against terrorism – everyones patriotic and best interest for everyone mode of solitarity and support to the mission of nonviolence, nonterrorism, and hope for the USA and for the world.

    seriously, if you have read my messages, i hope you consider this carefully when and if you do vote.

    i can still vividly remember bush trying to hide his smirk and nonconcern as he read to the elementary school class – i was so shocked to see it – i will never forget – cuz i was also watching the bombing at the same time – and it truly was terrifying.

    bush said he did it to keep the children from being upset – and then spent the rest of his presidency fearmongering, and killing millions of innocent children, etc. what does romney have to say about this? obama? we the people need these answers in order to vote so as to not subject ourselves to further harm from ptsd.

    how do you form a massive nonvote protest?

    September 5, 2012 at 02:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • answeringcptsd

      here's another example:

      the movie Omen III or Damien ... who is the man with 666 on his scull in the movie.
      he is attracted to a female reporter.
      she says she doesn't know evil (or something to that effect)
      he deems to enlighten her
      he then causes her to fall into pond where she starts to drown cuz she doesn't know how to swim
      he then becomes her rescuer, takes care of her, seduces her, violently abuses her, brainwashes her son, uses her son as a puppet and a shield, and expects her to follow along ... willingly
      she is then made aware of the reality of the evil in front of him and dashes the only dagger that can stop his evil, the same that was used to kill her son when he used him for a shield, and therefore 'saves' the world from him ... supposedly ...
      (there are always sequels to sequels).
      therefore – she learns evil

      the only 'dagger' one has to stop the evil is to not vote until the evil is made apparent ... only then can a person truly vote responsibly. Demand answers as payment for your vote.

      September 5, 2012 at 03:41 | Report abuse |
    • cptsd

      the only chance of seeing this happen would be in our imaginative dreams and hopes for what many thought or wish USA was or could be.

      personally, if republicans take back the presidency, and if obama doesn't actually demand that he be able to lead for the people as he states he wants to, then i wish that are country would not be called a democracy so that others will not think i am to blame, since i will have to nonviolently protest with my non-vote of displeasure and disunity with the way the government is not really we the people – but we the wealthy and corrupt and the puppets to the few

      September 6, 2012 at 01:08 | Report abuse |
  13. Dr. Herbie Von Hindoo

    Great to see Steve Martin concerned about stressors and our brains. Now, whenever I feel stressed, and I mean like a deep sort of brain throbbing stress like when you go to the DMV or any of those places where a government employee is making a career out of selling you a decal that you need just to move about freely, I will think about Steve Martin jogging in one of those new (service specific) high school track suits and chasing Dane Cook, who he tases every time Dane Coke stops running. That so relaxes my mind.

    September 5, 2012 at 06:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • cptsd

      you could just fantasize about watching reruns of honey boo boo when your tracked to wherever you choose to park your current viewing mechanism when you leave ...

      September 5, 2012 at 08:41 | Report abuse |
  14. cptsd

    here's my recommendations:


    September 6, 2012 at 01:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. wondering

    I am wondering if President Obama and his wife actually meant to poison the entire public school population of America with artificial sweetners to create more sick people for the people (re: duke and co. and bush and co. and pharma and co.) to make money off of as the sole reason for this decision. Why not more recess and actual instruction with consideration for physical/mental health like is seen in cultures whom practice healing exercise methods like chi gong, tai chi, yoga, meditation. I think this is where USA will lose the most, the exploitation of Americans in the health industry for the benefit of the few, not for health purposes. And the neglect of true mind/body health for the children and for the public in general.
    Any veering to this path other than what is truly healthy will immediately be viewed by many as a sign that the rest of the administration is also corrupt, non-logical, non-beneficial, and therefore will reject it.

    September 6, 2012 at 05:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. speakingfromexperience

    Speaking from experience watching kids suffer through the exploitation, neglect, abuse, and outright disablement, prejudice, discrimination, cradle to jail culture it has created and will now be asked to maintain with what I see happening to what medicaid kids suffer through already, and the people who exploit them for their own benefit like duke and co. and pharma and co. as guini pigs and puppets, I would definitely vote No to that type abuse and manipulation from the government and co.

    September 6, 2012 at 06:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • cptsd

      Makes you wonder why you even have to choose the lesser of two evils in the first place.
      so then there's always the choice of not choosing – therefore no chosen

      September 6, 2012 at 07:05 | Report abuse |
  17. delusionisrelative

    i give mr. obama an a for mentioning we the people in his acceptance speech
    i imagine you wouldn't want to actually start wwiii at your acceptance speech, but then again i haven't listened to romney's acceptance speech yet.
    just wish he mentioned something about changing the unhealthy quality of our health care system, fda corruption, and corruption and exploitation within the current medicaid/medicare systems and promise to end the delusion politics on that front, which is ruining the health of the nation.

    September 7, 2012 at 06:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • cptsd

      so in your statement that you guess you wouldn't really imagine that anyone would actually start wwiii in their acceptance speech, and your delusionisrelative moniker, were you really referring to a "you could feel it coming" analogy?

      September 8, 2012 at 06:25 | Report abuse |
    • delusionisrelative

      yes in various ways.
      it's like if you can see the paths that lie ahead of you through intelligence, knowledge, or intuition, whilst you deal with deluded perceptions of the environmental persons or society around you – who are deluded because they don't see the paths or the outcomes, consequences, or fate before them due to their own clouded or blocked perceptions of true reality as it really is in all its multiple layers of perceptions, than you become the deluded to them while they are the deluded to you, until the future is reality and your delusion is acknowledged as insight (or evil given the perceptions of delusions that abound). And if you try to change the future for yourself and others, unless you can somehow convince them of your vision, they will view you as more that just deluded in a negative sense that can and often does (in the environment as it is) result in harm to the visionary, and more future within the others delusions.
      something like that.

      September 8, 2012 at 23:01 | Report abuse |
    • cptsd

      you are right about the delusion is relative referral of course, as you state, in all its various forms of delusions, and struggles to maintain and/or struggle with and/or create as reality in differing degrees vs. the same motivating factor of all others, in their varying degrees.
      I wonder if there hasn't been a misunderstanding on the part of some that when someone says do not have my image nor treat my image like it were god, and therefore react in delusional matter about an image which is only that an image, and not really this someone who says this, nor god in its various forms of representation to whomever is the the reference point, they sorta meant that you should do this as not to be caught in a delusion in which you could suffer harm through attachment that could cause one to react in based upon that perception and not the true reality of all delusions, etc. ....
      you are right, delusion is relative ... and seemingly forever ... wonder why ...

      September 13, 2012 at 05:59 | Report abuse |
  18. Dr Olu Bamgbade

    This research was small and focussed on the stress of major trauma, battle or disasters: the study outcome/findings can not be applied to the common, usual, civilian stress that we experience daily or periodically.

    September 7, 2012 at 07:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • cptsd

      if i may ask:
      what country do you live in
      surely not usa
      you have no idea

      September 7, 2012 at 11:50 | Report abuse |
  19. cptsd

    I think it is outrageous that after duke and co. spending millions upon millions of tax payer money (probably close to a billion) on ptsd research, starting at least as far back as using and abusing vietnam veterans for their research manipulations, that they have not acquired the knowledge YET to deal with these issues. the usa vets and entire world suffers at their hands

    September 7, 2012 at 22:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • answeringcptsd

      ... willingly ...
      and if not, by lies, fear, coercion, abuse, neglect, malpractice, and prejudice, discrimination, and politics ...

      September 7, 2012 at 23:34 | Report abuse |
  20. courtney sorenson

    print out for your research article

    November 28, 2012 at 18:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Canada Drugstore Online

    Canada Drugstore Online

    January 11, 2013 at 03:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Canada Drugstore


    January 11, 2013 at 03:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. buy plays on soundcloud

    Recently, I did not give a lot of consideration to leaving comments on weblog page posts and also have positioned remarks even a lot much less.


    April 11, 2016 at 14:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Pablo

    Aw, this was a unbelievably very good short article. Having the year and serious exertion in the direction of crank out a very good report… yet what can I say… I be reluctant a complete whole lot and put on’t afford toward get hold of some thing finished.


    August 9, 2017 at 15:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. brandshoes-world

    pespasa, fhawks,
    brandshoes-world http://www.brandshoes-world.com/

    May 18, 2018 at 11:58 | Report abuse | Reply

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.