For some people the election of Donald Trump was a glorious moment of triumph. For others, it was a debilitating moment of trauma. But for a team of researchers at UCLA, it was the perfect opportunity to test how the brain responds to political distress.
“A lot of research on stress in the brain looks at events that occur on an individual level,” said Sarah Tashjian, a graduate student in psychology at UCLA who led the work. “We wanted to see if we could extrapolate that to a larger event like a shift in the political climate”
In a study published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience, Tashjian and her advisor, UCLA psychology professor Adriana Galvan, report that the election of Trump led some people who felt distressed by the result to become clinically depressed, but not all of them.
So, why did some distressed people get depressed while others didn’t?
To come to this conclusion, the researchers recruited 60 study participants from Los Angeles — 40 who said they expected to be negatively affected by the result of the election; and 20 who said they were not affected at all, to serve as a control.
(Because all study participants were given an MRI — a considerable expense — the sample size was rather small.)
The volunteers completed a suite of surveys that indicated the level of their distress over the election and whether they exhibited any depression symptoms such as lack of appetite or bouts of crying. They also answered questions about how much social support they get from friends and family, as well as their personal discrimination experiences.
Next, volunteers were sent to an MRI machine, where the researchers measured their brain’s response to getting a monetary reward, missing out on getting a monetary reward, and losing money.
The authors were particularly interested in activity in two regions of the brain — the nucleus accumbens, which is embedded deep in the brain; and the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain above the eyes. These regions have a strong connection to each other, and both are involved in what scientists call “reward circuitry.”
“When something feels good, or you get social support, money, or candy, this part of the brain gets really excited,” Galvan said.