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  • NHRC Study: Possible to Modify Brain Behavior in Marines Prior to Stress Exposure
    By Anna Hancock, Naval Health Research Center Public Affairs Officer

     

    SAN DIEGO (NNS) -- A recent study led by Naval Health Research Center shows that brain behavior, or mechanisms related to stress, can be modified in Marines prior to deployment.

    According to an article released in the American Journal of Psychiatry May 16, of the two groups of Marines studied, the group who underwent mindfulness-based techniques before exposure to stress had changes in their physiological responses to stress and their molecular brain activity. The results were further supported by neuroimagery, which showed a decrease of activity in the relevant areas of the brain.

    "We looked at young, healthy Marines prior to deployment. We wanted to see if we can modify some of their stress response functions while they were going through stressful training prior to deployment," explained Dr. Chris Johnson, clinical neuropsychologist, and principal investigator of the study. "The answer was 'yes'."

    The region of the brain responsible for communication between the brain and the body is called the insula. How the brain understands what the body is experiencing is called the interoceptive sense - sometimes referred to as the "sixth sense". According to Johnson, some people are more in tune with this sense than others. Typically that translates into a person's ability to handle stress.

    "When you expose 100 people to the same trauma, for example, not everybody is going to have the same response. Some people are going to be OK, some people will thrive during stress, and some people are going to have what we call over adaptation, or a difficult time," said Johnson. "We found that the elite performers, the people who do really well under stress are in tune with this sense. That's the group we wanted to study."

    Eight infantry Marine platoons participated. All eight platoons underwent typical pre-deployment training; however, only four platoons received mindfulness training. The group receiving mindfulness training went through a 20-hour course over an eight week period. The program, according to the article, emphasized interoceptive awareness, and focused on enhancing stress resilience. 

    "For example, there was a four hour workshop where the Marines were told they cannot have their phone or their watch. They couldn't talk and were required to focus," stated Johnson. "Naturally, this can make anyone anxious. For some, it took three hours before they could relax. It was to teach control over emotion and awareness."

    The research team took a baseline measurement of the participants. Throughout the study, the team measured the Marines' physiological responses such as their heart rate and breathing rate. The team also regularly examined molecular biomarkers and performed neuroimaging to get a physical picture of the brain activity. 

    "Then we evaluated the mindfulness group to see if they responded to stress differently," explained Johnson. "This was a behavioral intervention and it changed the brain function. It's a skill, not just knowledge, but actual behaviors and thoughts that can be modified and enhance resiliency."

    When asked about future research projects in this area, NHRC's Director of Science and Development Dr. Karl Van Orden discussed the importance of replicating the study's findings.

    "This is a complex study, and we need to be certain of the findings. Currently, a more rigorous and controlled replication study is underway, and is including measures on operational military tasks," noted Van Orden. "Future studies will need to examine the longer term health and readiness benefits of mindfulness training and practice."

    "This is one of the many studies NHRC has done to support the well-being of our military forces," noted NHRC's Commanding Officer Capt. Jacqueline Rychnovsky. "Resiliency is crucial before deployments, during deployments, and when our troops come home and get back into routine with their families or friends. I'm proud of the team's ingenuity and our ability to be forward-thinking." 

    As the DoD's premier medical research center, NHRC's cutting-edge research and development is used to optimize the operational health and readiness of the nations armed forces. Within close proximity to more than 95,000 uniformed service members, world-class universities, and industry partners, NHRC's expert team sets the standards in joint ventures, innovation, and practical application.

    This study was a collaborative effort between fleet Marine forces, Navy Medicine, the Office of Naval Research, and academic institutions across the country. More information can be found at www.ajp.psychiatryonline.org. ​