top of page
  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

New Science – Observable Brain Changes in Rats Subjected to Stress

More on brain rewiring and damages potentially recoverable in current or future tort litigation. This prior post provided some fact patterns and legal issues on future damages issues as drawn from research breakthroughs described in a wonderful book on brain plasticity – The Brain That Changes Itself — Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Dr. Norman Doidge.

Now, here’s more to think about as both individuals and as tort lawyers who end up in arguments about what is “harm,” how it is proved and measured, and how it is compensated. Specifically, yet more news on brain rewiring is out and indicates that stress does produce physical changes in the brain, thus providing possible evidentiary support for claims that stress is indeed a physical injury.

This August 17, 2009 NYT article by Natalie Angier summarizes new research on brain plasticity as it relates to stress. The gist is that scientists in Portugual this summer published an article in a prestigious medical journal regarding their findings on brain changes when rats were subjected to stress. The not so good news is that stress does indeed destroy brain wiring. The better news is that the brain can rewire and return to “normal” when the stress is reduced back to normal levels. Here are key quotes:

“Reporting earlier this summer in the journal Science, Nuno Sousa of the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute at the University of Minho in Portugal and his colleagues described experiments in which chronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses, like compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating.

Moreover, the rats’ behavioral perturbations were reflected by a pair of complementary changes in their underlying neural circuitry. On the one hand, regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed. (emphasis added).

**** But with only four weeks’ vacation in a supportive setting free of bullies and Tasers, the formerly stressed rats looked just like the controls, able to innovate, discriminate and lay off the bar. Atrophied synaptic connections in the decisive regions of the prefrontal cortex resprouted, while the overgrown dendritic vines of the habit-prone sensorimotor striatum retreated.”

If I were a plaintiff’s lawyer, the NYT and Science article would be dropped into my bag of citations and evidence to argue for a broader range of treatment after, for example, suffering a trauma from a one time physical event or after cancer has been countered via surgery, chemotherapy or other means. As a defense lawyer, I’m probably going to argue this is not (yet) accepted science and try to keep it out of evidence under the Daubert rules. But, one might also ask what makes sense for the long term – perhaps injured people should receive some paid for r & r to get them into good patterns and a better recovery that may save money in the long run. Then we lawyers can argue about who should pay for it – the health insurer, the Comphrehensive General Liability insurer, the tort defendant or some government agency.

6 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page