Programmed to Fight or Flee

Jamie Maguire investigates the neurological origins of stress
In the video above, Jamie Maguire talks about her research into the molecular basis of stress. Video: Steffan Hacker
February 12, 2013

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In the first installment of an occasional video series on research at Tufts, we visit the lab of Jamie Maguire, an assistant professor of neuroscience.

Known to play its part in sleep and mood disorders, as well as obesity and cardiovascular disease, stress is an all-too-common component of our lives. But stress itself has primordial origins. A series of physiological and psychological changes known as the fight-or-flight response, stress is evolution’s way of helping humans and other mammals escape dangerous situations, evade predators or compete with rivals.

Some of these stress-induced changes prepare a body to flee; some prime an animal for a fight. Those strategies made perfect sense for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but they are less useful today. Most of our stressors—work, school, rush-hour traffic, money issues—don’t cause any physical harm. But prolonged periods of stress, such as being unemployed or serving in a war zone, can affect your health.

Jamie Maguire, an assistant professor of neuroscience, studies the neurons deep in the brain that orchestrate the fight-or-flight reaction. When those brain cells sense danger, they kick off a chemical cascade that ends with the release of stress hormones into the bloodstream. By studying the intricate steps of that little-understood chain reaction, Maguire seeks to one day be able to tamp down the effects of stress on the mind and body—particularly in people with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu; Steffan Hacker can be reached at steffan.hacker@tufts.edu