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When a person gets really stressed out and has a mental breakdown what happens to their frontal lobes?

I'm reminded of the clip from "What about Bob?" when Richard Dreyfuss has a breakdown when he learns that Bill Murray is marrying his sister, and then he ends up in the home basket weaving for a couple of months as an example of this...

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I'd suggest changing the question to something akin to "what are the neural correlates of a mental breakdown" or even "Is a mental breakdown detectable at the neural level?" The current question presupposes the lobe granularity is the right one, which we shouldn't accept without some cited research. –  zergylord May 17 '13 at 23:09
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up vote 2 down vote accepted

Research would suggest that the type of "incessant" or "severe" stress required to precipitate a "breakdown" would the higher cognitive functions performed within the frontal lobes. As I am unsure what level of understanding you are requiring on this topic, I have included suitable quotes from a relevant study, which provides the answer to your question.

I quote Amy F. T. Arnsten's study of the effects of stress on the frontal lobe:

The prefrontal cortex (PFC)—the most evolved brain region—subserves our highest-order cognitive abilities. However, it is also the brain region that is most sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress exposure. Even quite mild acute uncontrollable stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities, and more prolonged stress exposure causes architectural changes in prefrontal dendrites. Recent research has begun to reveal the intracellular signalling pathways that mediate the effects of stress on the PFC. This research has provided clues as to why genetic or environmental insults that disinhibit stress signalling pathways can lead to symptoms of profound prefrontal cortical dysfunction in mental illness.

Within the conclusion:

The detrimental effects of stress on PFC networks are particularly problematic in the ‘information age’, when PFC-mediated cognitive abilities are increasingly needed for success. understanding the molecular mechanisms that alter PFC structure and impair PFC function during stress exposure will help to reveal how genetic and environmental insults can increase an individual’s susceptibility to PFC deficits. Identifying the molecular mechanisms that alter PFC function will provide the foundation for a new era in psychiatry, when we will understand how genetic changes affect intracellular signalling, neural development and neurophysiology in the circuits that underlie neuropsychiatric symptoms. It is hoped that this information will provide the framework for therapies aimed at rectifying molecular errors and ameliorating the symptoms of mental illness.

Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function
Amy F. T. Arnsten
Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009 June; 10(6): 410–422.
doi: 10.1038/nrn2648

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