Study explores how nature nurtures the brain

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New research has examined the relationship between natural and urban environments on stress-related brain mechanisms in an attempt to understand how exposure to these settings affects mental health and the brain.  

The study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, was conducted by investigators at the Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany.

The research team developed an intervention study to investigate changes in stress-related brain regions during the effect of a one-hour walk in an urban (busy street) vs. natural environment (forest). According to the study, brain activation using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was measured in 63 healthy participants before and after the walk.

The findings reveal that amygdala activation decreases after the nature walk, whereas it remains stable after the walk in an urban environment. As a result, the researchers said this suggests that going for a walk in nature can have salutogenic effects on stress-related brain regions and may act as a preventive measure against mental strain and potentially disease.

“The results support the previously assumed positive relationship between nature and brain health, but this is the first study to prove the causal link,” said Simone Kühn, PhD, head of the Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neuroscience in a statement. “Interestingly, the brain activity after the urban walk in these regions remained stable and did not show increases, which argues against a commonly held view that urban exposure causes additional stress.”

In order to investigate beneficial effects of nature in different populations and age groups, the researchers are currently working on a study examining how a one-hour walk in natural versus urban environments impacts stress in mothers and their babies.