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The crazy reason your brain is shrinking

Sep. 17, 2012 at 8:17 AM ET

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A big reason for loss of brain mass in the prefrontal cortex? You guessed it -- stress. The best thing you can do is learn to manage it well.

Madeline Haller

Men's Health

Need another reason to take a break from your hectic 9-to-5? All that work could be bad for your brain. Stress and depression can shrink your brain by blocking the formation of new nerve connections, finds a new study in Nature Medicine.

Researchers analyzed the brain tissue from dead people and found that five genes--each one playing a role in communication within the brain--were scarce in the tissue of people who suffered from major depressive disorders.

Instead, the depressed people's brains appeared to have an excess of GATA1, a "genetic switch" that when "off" basically stops the genes from communicating. In turn, that lack of communication leads to a loss of brain mass in the prefrontal cortex, says Ronald Duman, Ph.D., senior study author and professor at Yale University.

And the biggest cause of that GATA1 overload? You guessed it: stress.

When your body encounters a stressful situation, it releases stress hormones. These hormones then trigger the excess GATA1, leading to a loss of connection in the brain, Duman explains.

To test their findings, the researchers exposed a group of mice to chronic stress and found that GATA1 increased significantly in the stressed-out rodents.

Duman hopes his team's research paves a promising pathway for new depression treatments. In the meantime, the best thing you can do to prevent your brain from shrinking is manage stress well, he says.

One quick fix: Stock up on omega-3s, since they help reduce stress. In 2011, Ohio State researchers wrangled 68 medical students for a 12-week study. Half took a 2,500 milligram daily dose of an omega-3 supplement--equivalent to the amount in 4 ounces of cooked wild salmon. The other half took a placebo. Omega-3 cut reported stress levels by roughly 20 percent compared to the placebo group. (Keep stress whipped into submission all day long by eating the 7 Best Stress-Fighting Foods.)

Additional reporting by Markham Heid

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