What’s the matter with my brain?

Gray matter may shrink after stressful events.

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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When it comes to the brain, gray matter matters; the more you have, the better off you are. But a new report by Yale researchers suggests that stressful events, such as divorce, job loss, or death in the family, are associated with a decrease in gray matter volume in certain areas of the brain, which may make it harder to regulate emotion, maintain self-control, and restrain impulses.

"We know that stress is related to depression," says Emily Ansell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale and lead author of the study. "We believe lower gray matter in key areas of the brain may be one of the pathways leading to depression or anxiety."

The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, examined the brains of 103 healthy people. The researchers interviewed them about the number and type of stressful events they'd experienced. Using brain scans, they found that those who had experienced a higher number of stressful events over the course of their lives had less gray matter. Further, they found that individuals who had experienced more stressful life events within the past year had less gray matter, suggesting that the effects may be observable within months.

Gray matter is made up of nerve cells and the connections between them, called dendrites. Ansell says the researchers believe that stress causes a neurotoxic environment, though it's still not clear what happens to the cells.

The good news, she says, is that lost gray matter can return. "The brain is malleable, constantly changing in response to the environment. We believe gray matter differences may not be permanent, or at the very least, may be responsive to treatments."

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