How USC plans to rehabilitate the college brain


Homo sapiens are an obsessively social species. Our brains crave connection, information and stimulation — elements in abundance in the digital age, when devices give us perpetual access to the universe of social media. But in this fast-paced, digitized world, students are feeling the strain of this overstimulation, exemplified by the growing trend of depression, anxiety and stress on college campuses. Now, the Engemann Student Health Center is responding to the latest research in neuroscience by promoting mindfulness and exercise at USC and providing programs to rehabilitate the brain.

Dr. Kelly Greco is the interim assistant director of outreach services at the Engemann Center. She spoke about the latest challenges she and her colleagues face on campus and how in today’s collegiate environment, stressors outpace students’ ability to cope.

“I think with this generation, the amount of stress exceeds someone’s coping skills and what someone can do,” Greco said. “I think a lot of that has to do with social media and technology.”

That the rise in mental illness among college students is in tandem with the rise of social media is no speculation. A wave of studies in the past few years has identified social networking sites, particularly Facebook, as a driver of stress and anxiety in the individual. Many of these studies find that the need for social acceptance through “likes” and other digital forms of approval leads to users feeling dissatisfied and despondent. And the compulsive checking for updates, enabled by constant accessibility, can harm users’ well-being. Greco said the pervasive access in this digital culture leads to sensory overload.

“We get a quick fix and get information quickly, so we can be stimulated a lot more than we could 40 years ago,” she said.

To understand how to restore a brain overstimulated by its environment, it is necessary to investigate the brain’s potential as a dynamic entity. Dr. Giselle Petzinger, researcher at the George and MaryLou Boone Center for Parkinson’s Disease Research at the Keck School of Medicine, outlined the role of physical exercise in shaping the brain.

“We think that what you do for exercise could very well matter,” Petzinger said.

She explained that exercise can impact mental health by “increasing connectivity and making brains more resilient.”

“We have data suggesting that skill-based exercise may ameliorate cognitive-related problems,” Petzinger said. “Mental illness often has cognitive domains affected. Some of the research we’re doing suggest that skill-based exercise, which requires more cognitive engagement, may be particularly useful.”

These skill-based exercises, such as playing tennis or basketball, are preferable to simply running on a treadmill because they engage various circuits of the brain simultaneously.

A shape-shifting biological structure, the brain has enough plasticity to allow it to respond to its environment through chemical and cellular changes. Because of this, the neurological state of individuals is strongly tied to their environment.

“The idea is that enriched environments, in a way, provide lots of contextual information that we use to learn,” Petzinger said. “We need an enriched cognitive environment, and we need some level of variability.”

Experiments with mice reveal the profound effect the environment can have on plasticity, measured by the subject’s versatility and problem-solving skills. Mice in cages with treadmills, plastic tubes and other playful elements had healthier brains — and were better at cognitive tests — than mice confined to “dull,” itemless cages. The challenge posed to neuroscientists like Petzinger and health professionals is bridging the research to the patient, translating the knowledge gained from the laboratory into real-world applications.

Through a variety of workshops, classes and outreach programs, the Engemann Center is bringing the fight to mental illness, ushering in an era of mental health awareness and student rehabilitation. Currently, the Engemann Center offers everything from educational programs to yoga classes to stress fitness workshops — held throughout October and November and featuring stress-relieving tips such as relaxation and improved sleep.

In conjunction with these utilities provided by the Engemann Center, practicing self-awareness and being conscious of one’s use of social media are also important, Greco said.

“I think you have to look at your environment. How much stimulation [is] in those environments?” Greco said. “There’s always chaos around us; there’s always deadlines, demands that impact us on a daily basis. What do we do to manage it is the question for all of us.”

To restore order to a frenetic mind, Greco encourages students to evaluate their relationship with social media, rationing its use whenever possible.

In the culture of connectivity, restraining ourselves from our devices and becoming physically active can be difficult, but the results, Greco said, can be liberating.

“It’s hard to do, but I think it’s going to come around that [people who use social media] are really experiencing the negative parts of it,” Greco said. “I think it’s impacting us more than we think it is.”