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City Life Affects Brain's Response to Stress

Study May Help Explain Why City Residents Have Higher Rates of Depression and Anxiety
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How Cities Tax the Brain continued...

"I think there's a lot to the story that our environment is important to how we function and also what our mental health is like," says study researcher Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, MD, PhD, director of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim and professor of psychiatry at Heidelberg University, in Germany.

Meyer-Lindenberg says that to tease out what parts of city life might be responsible for the stress response, he is now comparing the brains of migrants and non-migrants who live in the same city. "They have a different social environment, but same city environment," he tells WebMD.

Experts who were not involved in the research praised its use of neuroscience to try to pinpoint how complex environmental influences impact the brain.

"I hope more scientists try to do this where they combine basic kinds of neuroscience with these kinds of bigger, broader problems, that's very commendable," says Marc Berman, PhD, a research fellow at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "But it's one study, and it's correlational, so we need a lot more work in this area."

But it's not the first study to question how urban environments might affect mental functioning.

In a study published in Psychological Science in 2008, Berman and his colleagues asked healthy adults to walk through an urban environment or a natural setting. 

After the walks, the researchers called out sequences of numbers and had study participants repeat the digits back to them in reverse order, a test that measures working memory.

After a walk in nature, people showed about a 20% improvement in their working memory compared to after they walked down city sidewalks.

Though researchers can't explain exactly what it is about the urban environment that may tax the brain, they speculate that cities, with their competing noises, smells, and sights, drain the brain's ability to direct attention.

Natural settings, they believe, require a different kind of attention from the brain, one that doesn't appear to be as fatiguing.

"I wouldn't draw the conclusion from these studies that city living is bad or urban living is bad and we should all move into the country," says Berman.

"We need to figure out what elements about the city are harmful to us, what things we can change, what things we can add to the city to make it more restorative and better for cognitive functioning," he says.

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