For Release: August 30, 2007
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Robert Sapolsky Discusses Stress and Illness at the 24th Schumann Lecture

HANOVER, NH—If you're a zebra and a lion is after you, naturally, you feel stressed. Your hormones kick in, you run like crazy, and, if you're lucky, live to run another day. In the meantime, don't worry, be happy.

As modern humans, on the other hand, "We live well enough to have the luxury to get ourselves sick with purely social, psychological stress, " says Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a noted Stanford researcher.

Sapolsky delivers the 24th Annual Helmut Schumann Lecture, "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: Insights on Stress and Illness," on September 26 at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, 7:30 p.m. in Auditoriums E-F.

The problem is, worrying about a credit card bill or a sulking teenager can trigger the same physiological response as avoiding a head-on collision with a car. The long term or chronic stress can result in a multitude of bad outcomes, he explains, such as arteriosclerosis, colitis, diabetes and neurological damage.

"The system didn't evolve for chronic activation," says Sapolsky, who will talk about his research into the physical and mental consequences of chronic stress. He is considered a brilliant lecturer and popular speaker who explains the causes and responses to stress with wit and scientific clarity.

Sapolsky first began research into the neurobiology of stress in 1978, when he was a Rockefeller University graduate student observing baboons on the Serengeti Plain. The importance of his work was recognized in 1987 with a MacArthur Fellowship, often dubbed "Genius Awards." He is now a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford, where his laboratory studies the biological consequences of stress on brain chemistry and potential gene therapies for protecting neurons.

The "villain," explains Sapolsky, is a class of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids, released during stress. During an immediate, short-term threat, glucocorticoids are essential for life. If you need to run away from a lion, glucocorticoids get your heart rate going and your muscles moving, they sharpen your thinking and delay functions you don't need while running for your life. But if stress continues, and glucocorticoids continue to be released, one of the results is destruction of neurons in the brain, and long-term memory loss. People with Alzheimer's or clinical depression have very high levels of glucocorticoids. "Given how many things glucocorticoid hormones affect, elevated levels can mess up a lot of things," says Sapolsky.

While the good news is that in many cases if the stress stops, so does the destruction of neurons, the bad news is that in certain cases of extreme stress--prolonged childhood abuse, clinical depression, combat stress--the damage can be permanent and irreversible. Children are at particular risk. "Everything I just told you about adult stress on the brain... multiply it ten fold when you think about a ten-year-old's brain," Sapolsky told an audience in 2000.

Not everyone responds to stress in the same way, and there are specific characteristics that encourage the continued flow of glucocorticoids. If you don't have any control over the stress and can't predict when it's going to happen, if you have no outlet for the frustration it causes, and, most importantly, if you have no social support, the result is high level of glucocorticoids. "Social isolation is a health risk factor," Sapolsky explains. Changing these circumstances changes the release of glucocorticoids.

Sapolsky has written four books, including Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and one about his experiences in Africa, A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons.

The lecture is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Michael Shoob, Hitchcock Foundation.


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