Stress: Meet a Scientist

How do you respond when you have to take an examination when you know you are unprepared? How do you respond when somebody treats you badly? How do you respond when you have to perform in public, as when giving a speech, playing a solo in band, or taking the last shot in a basketball game when your team is two points behind? You feel STRESSED, right? You know how upset you feel. But do you know what is happening in your body? … and brain?

Stress can be caused by emotional distress, physical challenges like toxins, trauma or infections, or a variety of diseases. Whatever the cause, many effects on the body are about the same. Namely, during stress a part of the nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system, becomes hyperactive. That can be a good thing because it makes you more alert and your body is mobilized for action. The pioneer in this research was W. B. Cannon, who originated the concept of homeostasis. We have a short biography of Cannon on the PEER web site.

As shown in the diagram below, stressful conditions release two main hormones. One of the hormones is adrenalin, released from n the central zone of the adrenal gland. Adrenalin stimulates the heart, raises blood pressure and heart rate. It also stimulates the brain, promotes alertness, and improves memory.The other hormone is cortisol, released from cells in the outer part of the adrenal gland. Cortisol helps the body respond to physical damage in several ways:
  • Increases blood glucose and the supply of energy to cells,
  • Reduces inflammation,
  • Mobilizes white blood cells to combat infection,
  • Stimulates the brain and promoting memory formation.

However, the benefits disappear when the stimuli that cause adrenalin and cortisol release continue for long periods. Continual stress may lead to high blood pressure and may lead to anxiety or depression. Excessive skin problems may appear, such as 
acne, hives, rashes, and itching. Chronic stress may also lead to diabetes because cortisol elevates blood sugar levels. Skin becomes easily bruised, and bruises and cuts do not heal easily. Infections are harder to combat. Continual exposure to cortisol interferes with learning and memory because it causes brain damage by shrinking synaptic connections.
The synthetic versions of cortisol, known as hydrocortisone or other chemical analogs, are used medically, but only for short periods. High doses and long-term exposure to cortisol is toxic.

Here, we will meet the pioneer in stress research, Hans Selye.


Meet the Scientist,

Hans Selye 


Are you stressed? Most everybody is at one time or another. Stress is imposed on you, perhaps by school, parents, peers, and the general demands of life. Stress makes us upset, anxious, mad, sad, and is generally unwelcome. Stress often makes us sick. Here, we will meet the pioneer in stress research, Hans Selye. His discoveries showed us what stress does to our bodies. As a result, we can learn how to deal with stress and keep it from making us mad and sad.

Dr. Selye was born in 1907 in Vienna Austria. Dr. Selye’s family admired real excellence, and accomplishment, while they disdained mediocrity and quitters. The family was at one time very rich, but they lost it all after his childhood in the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As a youngster, money was never in short supply, and he more or less took it for granted. What became important to him was learning and achievement. He said his father, who had lost his high military surgeon rank and personal fortune, told him that the one safe investment was in himself. “The only thing that is really yours, his dad said, “is what you can learn. Nobody can take that away from you without taking your life.”

As for education, it was more or less assumed that Hans would become a physician, just as his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had. His dad owned a prosperous surgical clinic, and, being the only son, Hans was expected to take over the clinic in due course. Hans had other ideas.

He performed poorly in his high-school experience, because the curriculum was “so bookish.” He hated biology the most, because there was little lab work, and the focus was on memorizing what he considered to be boring information. Later, in college when he became exposed to exploring ideas, his attitude changed drastically. He realized the value of memorization if one used the information to explore, discover, and learn new things. From his first year in college until he graduated from medical school, he led his class in grades.

Dr. Selye spent the bulk of his career at the University of Montreal in Canada. The author of this biosketch visited his lab and described it this way:

It was a crisp Canadian, October morning at the University of Montreal, and I was visiting the lab of Dr. Hans Selye to talk him into writing a chapter for my book, “Discovery Processes in Modern Biology.”

I doubt if any scientist has a lab quite like that of Dr. Selye. His lab occupied the entire 7th and top floor of the building. Along each of the four outside walls of the building were offices for students and post-docs. In the center of the floor were labs and a huge personal library staffed by several full-time librarians. His library contained over a half million reprints of publications by other scientists. One whole room is occupied totally by card catalogues.

Upon arriving, I was greeted by a receptionist and a few secretaries, and then led to a huge guest book. A significant number of the several hundred scientists and famous public figures who have visited Hans Selye have autographed pictures lining both sides of most of the halls in this large  complex.  One  of  those  pictures  was  that  of  Roger  Guillemin,  one  of  Selye’s  graduate students who won the Nobel prize for discovering hormones released by nerve cells that control the secretion of the pituitary gland. Also lining the halls are displays that summarize some of the past research accomplishments of Dr. Selye and his colleagues. One wall has a 10-foot wide world map, with red pins and string pointing all over the world, showing countries of origin of the many scientists who have actually worked in Selye’s lab.

I saw Selye’s conference room, carpeted and draped, and what appeared to be a 30-foot conference  table.  The  “tour  guide,”  a  graduate  student,  showed  me  Selye’s  medal  cabinet,  a display  mounted  on  red  velvet  background  of  his  more  than  70  medals  (one  denoting  him  as Honorary Citizen of my state, Texas).

I saw Selye’s famous post mortem room, where he personally critiqued every necropsy of experimental animals, at least up until about the last year. Selye’s very special talent was seeing things in animals, alive or dead, that others did not see.

And then I met Selye in his office. What does one say to a legend? This quiet, gentle, and aging man seemed to sense my embarrassment, and quickly engaged me in conversation about my own work. We talked about biological research and discovery processes. He showed me his office, one wall of which was lined with books-all written by him! He showed me draft manuscripts of his latest project, about a 10-volumes on hormones. Here he was near the end of his incredibly productive career, beginning a project of such mammoth scope that no one man had attempted such a thing before.

Selye began his higher education at the German University of Prague. This was followed by enrollment at the University of Paris, University of Rome, and back again to his first university. There he earned the M.D. degree, a Ph.D. in Chemistry, and a Doctor of Science degree.

It was in medical school that Hans realized his interest in research. The professors he sought out were the ones who were engaged in research. What he really wanted to know was what “made these professors tick.” What was the nature of their successes? How did they deal with frustrations and failures? What kinds of attitudes and talents does one need to pursue a life of research? I was also interested in such questions, which was one of the reasons I wanted to visit with Selye.

While a medical student, Selye was struck by noticing that many sick people had similar symptoms, even though they had different diseases. It seemed, as he put it, that the symptoms were symptoms of “just being sick.” He wondered, “Is being sick a sickness of its own?” Haunted by this question, he spent his life discovering that multiple diseases do create a common disease, a disease of being chronically stressed. This chronic response is a stress disease that can be superimposed on whatever abnormal situation caused the original disease. The symptoms are “nonspecific” (not characteristic of any one disease). Patients with chronic disease, of whatever cause, “looked sick” to him: they typically had a coated tongue, complained of diffuse aches and pains in the joints and intestinal disturbances with loss of appetite. Many had fever, sometimes with mental confusion, an enlarged spleen or liver, inflamed tonsils, and other signs.