Experiential factors shape the neural circuits underlying social and emotional behavior from the prenatal period to the end of life. These factors include both incidental influences, such as early adversity, and intentional influences that can be produced in humans through specific interventions designed to promote prosocial behavior and well-being. Here we review important extant evidence in animal models and humans. Although the precise mechanisms of plasticity are still not fully understood, moderate to severe stress appears to increase the growth of several sectors of the amygdala, whereas the effects in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex tend to be opposite. Structural and functional changes in the brain have been observed with cognitive therapy and certain forms of meditation and lead to the suggestion that well-being and other prosocial characteristics might be enhanced through training.
Figure - Chronic stress causes neurons to shrink or grow, but not necessarily to die. Representation of the chronic stress effects detected in animal models on growth or retraction of dendrites in the basolateral amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex (growth) and in the CA3 hippocampus, dentate gyrus and medial prefrontal cortex (shrinkage). These effects are largely reversible in young adult animals, although aging appears to compromise resilience and medial prefrontal cortex recovery.
Figure - Change in gray matter volume in the right basolateral amygdala from pre to post 8 weeks of mindfulness based stress reduction was associated with decreases in perceived stress over this same time period (see Hölzel et al.). Individuals undergoing MBSR who showed the largest decreases in perceived stress also showed the largest decreases in basolateral amygdala gray matter volume.