Healthy living

City stress affects the brain

City stress Higher risk of mental illness

Growing up and living in a city affects the way your brain responds to stress, and not in a good way, a new study suggests.

It has long been known that city living is more stressful than living in the countryside. Previous studies have shown that city dwellers are more likely to suffer from anxiety and mood disorders.

But until now little was known about how stress affected the brain in these different populations.

Dr Jens Pruessner at the Douglas Mental Health University, Quebec, said: “Previous findings have shown that the risk for anxiety disorders is 21 per cent higher for people from the city, who also have a 39 per cent increase for mood disorders.

“In addition, the incidence for schizophrenia is almost doubled for individuals who are born and brought up in cities. These values are a cause for concern and determining the biology behind this is the first step to remedy the trend.”

Dr Pruessner and another team of scientists at the Central Institute of Mental Health, Mannheim, carried out brain scans on 32 student volunteers while they took part in arithmetic tests. The students were led to believe they were performing poorly, and told to do better.

The scans revealed that different regions of the brains of city dwellers were activated in response to the stressful task.

City living was associated with greater stress responses in the amygdala, an area of the brain involved with emotional regulation and mood.

But an urban upbringing was associated with activity in the cingulate cortex, a region involved in regulating stress.

“These findings suggest that different brain regions are sensitive to the experience of city living during different times across the lifespan,” said Dr Pruessner.

“Future studies need to clarify the link between psychopathology and these affects in individuals with mental disorders.

"These findings contribute to our understanding of urban environmental risk for mental disorders and health in general.

"They further point to a new approach to interface social sciences, neurosciences and public policy to respond to the major health challenge of urbanisation.”

This article was published on Thu 23 June 2011

Image © Charly -

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