Robert Sapolsky: A vaccine for stress?

Having been implicated in a host of chronic conditions, stress is the repeated sweep of the horizon, the bug in our code, the shallow breath of our pell-mell lives.

Mindful? Most days, I'd settle for remembering where I left my keys. 

Describing this thoroughly modern state of affairs as "the luxury of slowly falling apart," 2006 IdeaFestival presenter Robert Sapolsky (my signed copy of "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" is on a bookshelf nearby as I write), knows something about what has often been viewed as an "unpleasant mental state with few long-term consequences."

Jonah Lehrer (incidentally, another former IdeaFestival presenter) writes that Sapolsky, based on decades of field work with primates in Kenya and neurological studies at home, has reveled stress' ancient roots in a the "fight" or "flight" impulse, identified a chemistry that reinforces existing stresses and more incredibly still, watched this conditioned response span the parent-child gap.

And he's working on a novel solution - a vaccine. Key Wired graphs:

The emergence of stress as a major risk factor is largely a testament to scientific progress: The deadliest diseases of the 21st century are those in which damage accumulates steadily over time. (Sapolsky refers to this as the "luxury of slowly falling apart.') Unfortunately, this is precisely the sort of damage that’s exacerbated by emotional stress. While modern medicine has made astonishing progress in treating the fleshy machine of the body, it is only beginning to grapple with those misfortunes of the mind that undo our treatments.

... Stress is a chemistry problem. When people feel stressed, a tiny circuit in the base of their brain triggers the release of glucocorticoids, a family of stress hormones that puts the body in a heightened state of alert. The molecules are named after their ability to rapidly increase levels of glucose in the blood, thus providing muscles with a burst of energy. They also shut down all nonessential bodily processes, such as digestion and the immune response. 'This is just the body being efficient,' Sapolsky says. 'When you’re being chased by a lion, you don’t want to waste resources on the small intestine. You’ll ovulate some other time. You need every ounce of energy just to get away.'


Image: USACE Europe District