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Discuss two effects of the environment on physiological processes (for example, effects of jet lag on bodily rhythms, effects

of deprivation on neuroplasticity, effects of environmental stressors on reproductive mechanisms).

Effect 1: Environmental demands and hippocampus volume expansion in London taxi drivers because of their learning navigational skills. Effect 2: Environmental stressors and hippocampal damage in PTSD patients because of the stress response.

Effect 2: Environmental stressors and hippocampal damage in PTSD patients because of the stress response. A stressor is any event that threatens to disrupt the bodys normal balance and starts a stress response such as secretion of stress hormones and activation of the fear sensor in the brain, the hypothalamus and the amygdala. Immediate Stress Response SAM system Hypothalamus ANS: Sympathetic Nervous System Adrenal Glands: Adrenal Medulla Releases Hormones: e.g. Adrenaline Chronic Stress Response HPA system Hypothalamus CRH Pituitary Gland ACTH (through blood) Adrenal Glands: Adrenal Cortex Releases Hormones e.g. Cortisol

A stressor may be an acute stressor (e.g. having an accident) or it could be a chronic stressor (e.g. long term stress, worrying). The fight or flight response is a pattern of physiological responses that prepare the body to deal with the emergency. Sapolsky (1996) has shown in animal studies that long term stress (chronic stress) which produces a prolonged flow of cortisol can influence the size of the hippocampus, which plays a major role in memory. Trauma and PTSD Traumatic episodes (i.e. frightening situations from which a person either feels they cannot or they actually cannot escape) produce intense fear. Although the statistics differ depending upon the source, in about 5% of the population this may lead to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) with effects that can last from a brief period up to a lifetime. Combat veterans and survivors of childhood sexual abuse who suffer from PTSD tend to have a number of stress related problems such as forgetfulness and difficulty learning. In such patients stress-related physiological change have been observed in the brain, especially in the hippocampus, which plays an important role in integrating different aspects of a memory at the time of recollection.

Key Study: Bremner et al. (2003) Full reference: Bremner, J.D., Vythillingam, M., Vermetten, E., Southwick S.M., McGlashan,T., Nazeer, Alk, Khan,S, Vaccarino, V., Soufer, R., Pradeep, K., Chin, K., Stalb, L.H. & Duncan, J.S. & Charney, D.S. (2003). MRI and PET Study of Deficits in Hippocampal Structure and Function in Women With Childhood Sexual Abuse and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 160,pages 924-932. Full paper available: Aim: to measure the volume of the hippocampus based on the theory that prolonged stress may reduce the volume of the hippocampus due to increased cortisol levels. Procedure: MRI scans were made of the brains of the participants and participants completed memory tasks (e.g. remembering a story or a list of words). The participants were veterans and female adults who had experienced early childhood sexual abuse. Some had developed PTSD but not all. Results: The researchers found that there were deficits in short-term memory and then performed MRI scans of the participants brains. They found that the hippocampus was smaller in PTSD patients than in a control group. The veterans with most memory problems also had the smallest hippocampus. These findings show a clear correlation between number of years of abuse as measured by a trauma test, memory problems and hippocampal volume. People suffering from PTSD often suffer from other psychological disorders (e.g. depression), which could perhaps also play a role in the observed changes in the brain. Evaluation Points: The sample was very small so it is difficult to say anything definite about the relationship between trauma and hippocampal volume. There could be alternative explanations to differences in the hippocampal volume (e.g. That people who suffer from PTSD often suffer from depression as well). Depression is also associated with reduction of the hippocampal volume in combat-related PTSD has been replicated many times.

Image: Brain hypothalamus/hippocampus

Bremner et al. (2003) paper accessed 12th October, 2012

Extension work:

More information on PTSD: see handout on topic from PAG/Ardingly College:

Royal College Psychiatrists information on PTSD Nice information on PTSD