Researchers at ETH Zurich have shown for the first time that selective release of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline reconfigures communication between large-scale networks in the brain. Their findings provide insights into rapid neural processes that occur in the brain during stressful situations.
In moments of acute stress – for example, a life-threatening situation in road traffic – our brain has just a split second to react. It focuses attention on the most important environmental cues in order to make life-or-death decisions in fractions of a second. To accomplish this, efficient communication needs to be quickly established between various areas of the brain by forming so-called functional networks.
How the brain guides these rapid processes has been thus far unclear. Tests on humans suggested a major role for the neurotransmitter noradrenaline (also called norepinephrine), which the brain releases in large quantities during stressful situations. However, it is not possible to directly examine this theory in people, because noradrenaline release cannot be selectively manipulated.
Two ETH Zurich research teams, headed by Johannes Bohacek and Nicole Wenderoth, joined forces to crack this difficult problem.