In pursuit of resilience: stress, epigenetics, and brain plasticity

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016 Jun;1373(1):56-64. doi: 10.1111/nyas.13020. Epub 2016 Feb 25.


The brain is the central organ for adaptation to experiences, including stressors, which are capable of changing brain architecture as well as altering systemic function through neuroendocrine, autonomic, immune, and metabolic systems. Because the brain is the master regulator of these systems, as well as of behavior, alterations in brain function by chronic stress can have direct and indirect effects on cumulative allostatic overload, which refers to the cost of adaptation. There is much new knowledge on the neural control of systemic physiology and the feedback actions of physiologic mediators on brain regions regulating higher cognitive function, emotional regulation, and self-regulation. The healthy brain has a considerable capacity for resilience, based upon its ability to respond to interventions designed to open "windows of plasticity" and redirect its function toward better health. As a result, plasticity-facilitating treatments should be given within the framework of a positive behavioral intervention; negative experiences during this window may even make matters worse. Indeed, there are no magic bullets and drugs cannot substitute for targeted interventions that help an individual become resilient, of which mindfulness-based stress reduction and meditation are emerging as useful tools.

Keywords: allostasis; allostatic load/overload; amygdala; eudaimonia; hippocampus; meditation; mindfulness; physical activity; prefrontal cortex; self-regulation.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Allostasis / physiology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Resilience, Psychological*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*