In Japan, the term Karoshi means “death from overwork,” and is based on the phenomenon of sudden death in previously healthy people who suffered either a stroke or heart attack when exposed to severe workplace stress. Scary? Well, it is. The good news is: It is possible to understand the adverse signalling between the brain and heart during stressful times, and to help the heart avoid developing a disease and survive.
Our brains create a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps the brain and nervous system to grow, helps the nerves to communicate, and is involved in the ability of nerves to change and adapt. Simply put, it functions in those parts of the nervous system that are needed for repair, learning, and memory. In addition, when levels of this protein are high, BDNF is thought to be a natural antidepressant.
A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University recently learned more about how BDNF signals the heart and affects its function. BDNF binds to the heart through a receptor called TrkB (tropomyosin-related kinase receptor. As BDNF increases and binds to TrkB, it helps the heart’s blood vessels and nerves to grow and develop.
Another way the brain works on the heart when it encounters stress is by stimulating nerves to release adrenalin, which makes the heart beat quicker and with more force. When BDNF is low, or the heart is not receptive to it, the heart remains sensitive to adrenalin. The combination is problematic, because a heart that is not sensitive to BDNF and is unable to adapt to stress becomes exposed to stress and can rapidly weaken and fail.
The research has provided some interesting clues to the mind-body relationship. It provides another glimpse into the complex and real interactions between body and mind. As science catches up to clinical observations, we learn of the complex signalling processes that govern them. By understanding these processes, we can understand the role of lifestyle changes and interventions and develop new therapies to prevent disease.
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