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All living creatures have to cope with environmental
demands and threats that challenge their physical
or emotional homeostasis.

Klodiana Daphne

De neurobiology of resilience

While many people experience stressful or traumatic events, the way individuals react and respond to adversity differs significantly.

The way individuals react and respond to extreme stress and adversity differs significantly. Some develop psychiatric disorders such as anxiety or mood disorders, while others recover from stressful experiences without displaying symptoms of psychological distress. Resilience can be defined as the capacity of avoiding harmful physiological and psychological consequences after exposure to adversity, stress or trauma through the flexible adoption of healthy strategies.

Although extensive research has focused on the effects of psychological factors that make individuals resilient to stress-related disorders, little is known about the neural substrates of a resilient profile. Neurobiological knowledge of resilience can be used to reduce the risk of exposure, but also to provide appropriate interventions to increase resilience in vulnerable individuals. This knowledge can be of use, among others, in populations that are subjected to high-stress environments.

Together with Prof. Dr. Nic van der Wee and Dr. Steven van der Werff, I am involved in the research of neurobiological mechanisms of resilience to stress and trauma. With the use of imaging techniques, such as functional and structural MRI, we are investigating the neural mechanism underlying resilience to stress and trauma. Furthermore, we also use biological parameters such as heart rate variability and stress hormones (cortisol) to find resilience specific patterns.

Our population consists of Dutch police officers which we divided into various groups: one group that has developed a mental illness (vulnerable group), and one group that has not developed a mental illness (resilient group) after experiencing a traumatic event. In addition, we have added a third group: the control group consisting of police officers from the academy who have not experienced traumatic experiences and who also do not meet the criteria of a mental disorder.

One of the findings we have found in this population is that, at rest, the resilient police officers have reduced functional activity between the salience network and certain areas of the brain, including prefrontal and motor areas. The salience network ensures, among other things, the detection of events which in turn are “flagged” as salient (important) or not.  When this event is flagged as salient, the salience network ensures that other areas and other networks in the brain are activated to act up on these salient cues (for example if danger is detected). The reduced activity found between these structures and the salience network could indicate that reduced saliency or reduced vigilance during rest is a resilience-specific neural mechanism.

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