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Cognition and Stress: Advances in Basic and Translational Research

Meeting Summary
Bethesda, Maryland

In July 2007, the NIMH Cognition Working Group held a multidisciplinary workshop to identify major trends, gaps, and opportunities in behavioral and biological research on cognition and stress. Workshop participants focused on (a) the nature and underlying mechanisms of the interactions between cognition and stress (including genetic, hormonal, developmental, experiential, and environmental factors influencing these mechanisms); and (b) how these interactions can lead to or influence the course of mental disorders and suggest new directions for intervention development.

The presentations covered a wide range of important new findings and ideas, including the role of cognition/stress interactions in the development of disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and schizophrenia. Participants identified the following new research questions and challenges for the field.

Much attention was devoted to how animal models can be used to investigate stress-related processes and psychopathologies in humans. Participants differed in their views regarding the relevance of current basic animal research for understanding human disorders, but agreed that further empirical and conceptual efforts are needed to connect this type of research more closely to clinical issues. Participants encouraged stronger collaborations between basic and clinical researchers and more basic research on human stress mechanisms. To this end, NIMH supports a number of efforts designed to foster collaborations, such as the Program Announcement, “Building Translational Research in Integrative Behavioral Science” (R21 , R24 , R01 ).

It was noted that researchers still lack a coherent definition of stress or a classification of stressors, stress responses, and long-term effects of stress that can be applied across species and environments. Relatedly, participants suggested that greater attention be given to assessing the adequacy of current experimental methods for manipulating stress and to developing new methods. Within such efforts, the effects of stress must be distinguished from those of deprivation and abuse. The interactions of stress with both negative and positive emotion should also be considered.

Workshop participants viewed research on how and when the organism controls stressors and responses as critical for understanding cognition/stress interactions and the development of disorders. This work will help to explain when stress responses are adaptive and when they become pathological. In addition, research should examine effects of the organism’s prior history of control and the nature and effects of illusory control.

Participants emphasized the importance of developmental research across the life span for understanding the long-term effects of cognitive and stress processes, interactions of those processes with other risk factors, conditions, and individual differences. Work on genetic vulnerabilities and gene/environment interactions, as well as identification of relevant behavioral phenotypes, should play a central role in these efforts. At the same time, ecological, interpersonal, and cultural influences on cognition and stress need to be addressed as well.

Significant progress has been made in understanding neural mechanisms underlying cognition/stress interactions at the molecular, cellular, and regional levels. Participants suggested that future work move beyond a focus on single brain regions to consider networks of regions.

In summary, workshop participants assessed current research on cognition, stress, and their interactions to be highly productive, yielding significant new findings at multiple levels of analysis and formulating tractable issues for future research. The field holds great promise for delineating the pathways and mechanisms that lead to mental disorders in humans and serve as targets for the development of more effective preventive and treatment interventions.

For further information, please contact Dr. Kathleen Anderson at kanders1@mail.nih.gov.