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Can we learn resilience from stressful events?

A new study from Princeton University suggests that experiencing stressful events can help people learn resilience. Using a mouse model, the researchers also found that dopamine may play an important role in building resilience and bouncing back quickly from adversity.

“Chronic stress can have lasting adverse consequences in some individuals, yet others are resilient to the same stressor,” wrote the study authors. “Susceptible and resilient individuals exhibit differences in the intrinsic properties of mesolimbic dopamine (DA) neurons after the stressful experience is over. However, the causal links between DA, behavior during stress and individual differences in resilience are unknown.”

For the investigation, the researchers placed small mice in close proximity with larger, aggressive mice. The team observed a display of defensive behaviors that could predict a mouse’s level of resilience. When dopamine was activated as the small mice defended themselves, resilience appeared to be even stronger.

Study lead author Lindsay Willmore was intrigued by the group of mice who defended themselves tenaciously when faced with an aggressor.

“They’d turn back towards the aggressor, they’d throw their paws out, they’d jump on him, and they would just not give up,” said Willmore. “I thought, wow, there’s something going on in these guys’ brains that’s super interesting and could be the key to resilience.”

“It’s a complicated environment where a mouse has to decide what to do around a bully mouse,” said study co-author Professor Ilana Witten. “What decision it makes has profound consequences in terms of how it ends up.”

While the defensive stances associated with fighting back were key in predicting a mouse’s resilience in the face of attack, Willmore said that even more strongly related to resilience was how much dopamine the animals had in their reward system during the time when they were starting to fight back. “That’s what was really cool to me – that an animal that is not just fighting back but is rewarded for fighting back is the one that becomes resilient.”

“I’m very interested in the question of whether we can teach resilience,” said study co-author Professor Annegret Falkner. The results of the study indicate that the answer is yes, as the mice showed that they could be guided toward resilience.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

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By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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