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Research study shows how stress can actually be good

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APRIL 18, 2013

UC Berkeley researchers have made a discovery that should reassure many students on campus: The stress they encounter every day may actually be beneficial for them.

Associate professor of integrative biology Daniela Kaufer and her team of colleagues from UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute published a paper Tuesday showing that while chronic stress may be detrimental to one’s health, acute stress may benefit the brain by keeping it alert and optimizing its performance.

“There’s not much literature out there that fully illustrates the effects of acute stress on the brain, so I was really interested in looking at the molecular mechanism that explains why some some stress may be beneficial,” Kaufer said.

The research team conducted the study by exposing rats to brief stressful events. They found that the stem cells in the rats’ brains began proliferating into new nerve cells that ultimately improved their mental performance.

Additionally, it turns out that cognitive and mental performance reach their peak when there is a brief period of stress but then deteriorates as the severity and duration of stress increase dramatically.

“This makes sense, from an evolutionary standpoint,” said Leslea Hlusko, an associate professor of integrative biology who did not participate in the study, in an email. “We are increasingly learning that environmental influences shape neurological development, (so) this kind of plasticity and reactivity (of the brain) would enable an organism to adapt to a wider range of environmental conditions.”

The study also reveals that humans have a variety of ways of responding to stress in their environment, which can help them deal with future stress, according to graduate student David Covarrubias, a member of Kaufer’s research team.

According to Kaufer, the research project has wide implications because most people routinely experience stress.

“It’s incredible that the research we’ve done is applicable to everyone and that we can explain highly complex physiological processes in the brain from a molecular level,” Kaufer said.

According to Covarrubias, the study shows that there is an entire spectrum of stress levels and that not every level of stress is detrimental to health.

“We wanted to distinguish the different kinds of stress and show that acute stress is entirely different from chronic stress in terms of their impact on cognitive performance,” Covarrubias said.

The results of this study resonate with some UC Berkeley students who, through the experience of frantically studying for exams, know that stress is sometimes good.

“It makes sense that there’s a spectrum of stress levels, because I know that sometimes stressing over a midterm will motivate me to study,” said sophomore Susan Lee.

Contact Jason Liu at [email protected].

APRIL 22, 2013