How brain chemicals help soldiers cope with stress

Interesting article. The gist of it is that they thought that the people who had high levels of noradrenaline and cortisol wouldn't cope, turns out they were the ones that coped best. They also produced high levels of a precursor hormone DHEA, so they had their foot "jammed on the brake and the accelerator at the same time", which seemed to be a winning strategy - given my flick through in WH Smith :D

This bit - "Before undertaking his studies, Morgan had expected the best-performing trainees to be the least stressed, and so to produce the least noradrenaline and cortisol. But when the researchers measured levels of the hormone in saliva samples taken during SERE training, they found exactly the opposite. "The people who were doing the best also had the highest levels of cortisol," says Morgan.

These high-performing troops also seem to make better use of the surge of cortisol and noradrenaline during acute stress. For instance, their heart rate shoots up more dramatically when stimulated by noradrenaline (Psychophysiology, vol 44, p 120).

That might explain their superior physical performance, but how do these troops maintain a clear head with such high levels of noradrenaline swamping their brain? The answer seems to be that their bodies are simultaneously jamming down hard on both the accelerator and the brake. Yes, they produce more cortisol and noradrenaline, but crucially, they also ramp up production of calming factors that help keep the brain's higher functions intact.

In the elite performers, Morgan's team found elevated levels of the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, which seems to buffer the brain against the negative effects of stress, although the mechanisms for this are not fully understood (Archives of General Psychiatry, vol 61, p 819). "If it was up to me, I'd have DHEA loaded in their rations," says Gary Hazlett, formerly a US army psychologist at Fort Bragg, and a member of Morgan's team".

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