Learn to Recover from Sexual Trauma and Abuse

Combining mental and physical training decreases depression and anxiety while increasing brain health and cognitive function

Every two minutes, someone in the US is sexually assaulted [1]. 30% of women worldwide experience some kind of physical or sexual violence [2], and girls ages 16–19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault [3]. Moreover, individuals with mental illness, especially in the homeless population, are more susceptible to sexual aggression and violence [4]. Dr. Tracey Shors, Distinguished Professor of Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience at Rutgers University, researches how sexual trauma affects the female brain and hopes to help women recover from sexual trauma and abuse by designing unique interventions. Whereas current interventions focus on either enhancing brain health or encouraging aerobic exercise, Dr. Shors’ program targets both mental and physical training, which is proving to be more effective in increasing mental and physical health in women who have suffered sexual or other types of trauma in their lives.

Dr. Shors’ intervention is based on rigorous neuroscience experiments done in her lab over the past decade or two. The intervention is known as MAP (Mental and Physical) Training. Collaborating with exercise scientist Dr. Brandon Alderman and Zen monks, Dr. Shors and her team are currently working with depressed students -- most of whom are women -- on campus and young mothers who were recently homeless on the streets of New Jersey -- most of them suffering untold trauma and abuses. Dr. Shors hopes to extend the program to women on campus who have experienced sexual violence and have not sought help, as well as women who are currently experiencing mental illness as a result of trauma and are in a treatment program on the Rutgers University campus. The team has already documented positive outcomes on mental and physical health, including significant decreases in depression and anxiety along with increases in brain activity and cardiovascular health. Ultimately, Dr. Shors hopes to make this intervention accessible to young girls and women who have suffered from the traumas associated with sexual aggression and abuse, and also to others who suffer from symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Current research includes:

  • The Effect of Sexual Trauma on Female Brain, Depression and Other Mental Illness: Our brain makes thousands of new neurons each day in the hippocampus, which is a part of brain we use to learn. This phenomena of neurogenesis, however, is also affected by stressful experience, which can reduce the numbers of new neurons. Dr. Shors has found that many of the newly generated neurons die unless the brain learns something new. Learning keep these cells from dying as long as it is effortful and learning occurs. She has also determined that sexual aggression can reduce learning and the survival of new neurons in the female brain.
  • MAP Training to Help Recover from Trauma: To help recover from trauma, Dr. Shors combines mental and physical training, both of which can increase neurogenesis in laboratory models. During one session of MAP Training, individuals engage in 30 minutes of silent meditation followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. In Dr. Shors’ studies, participants do MAP Training twice a week for eight weeks. After eight weeks, symptoms of depression were cut by 40%. Participants also produced greater synchronized brain activity while dealing with conflict and a reduction in stress-related heart activity. They also increased their oxygen intake. Ultimately, Dr. Shors hopes to establish MAP Training as an effective means of increasing brain health in humans from all walks of life.
  • Establishing Brain Mechanisms that Makes MAP Training Effective: Another big part of Dr. Shors’ research program is to find the mechanism that makes MAP training so useful in the brain, so that it can be further leveraged to strengthen the program. She believes it does so by decreasing the rumination of unwanted memories from the past. Her goal is to determine the brain mechanisms that decrease rumination and increase more positive reflection.

Bio

Dr. Tracey J. Shors is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers University. With more than 130 scientific publications, Dr. Shors investigates the neuronal mechanisms through which the brain learns and remembers. Over a decade ago, it was “rediscovered” that the brain continues to produce new neurons throughout life, a process known as neurogenesis. Dr. Shors has associated these new neurons with processes of learning and memory. Her laboratory determined that learning keeps new neurons alive — but only if learning occurs and it is effortful. These findings relate to the expression, “use it or lose it.”

Dr. Shors also studies sex differences in the brain. She has reported significant sex differences in learning and responses to memorable life experience. These differences in learning are mediated by different brain circuits and thereby implicate distinctive mechanisms in the male versus female brain. These effects of stress on learning are also sensitive to motherhood and other significant changes across the female lifespan.

Recently, Dr. Shors and a team of Rutgers scientists translated these data on neurogenesis and stress into a clinical intervention known as MAP Training, which stands for Mental and Physical Training. This program is an eight-week program combining motor and mental skill training. It is being provided to students on campus who suffer with depression as well as underserved young mothers in the community who were recently homeless. The MAP training program is having positive effects on brain health and cognitive function.

Dr. Shors’ brother is a scientist and when she was young, she thought he was the coolest person alive (she still does, as a matter of fact!). He received his Ph.D. from University of Southern California and she followed in his footsteps there. Of all the organs in the body, the two most interesting to her were the heart and the brain. While he pursued the heart -- Dr. Shors turned to the brain. One day soon after getting her Ph.D., she was walking down the hall in her building and happened to meet a giant in the field -- Dr. Richard F. Thompson. He was coming to USC to continue his search for the "engram" -- the circuits and mechanisms in the brain that allow us to learn and remember. Dr. Shors had the good fortune to work with him for the next four years, and has never met anyone who loved science more than Dick Thompson. It was infectious.

From then on, she was hooked and probably will be for the rest of her life!  While working with him, Dr. Shors studied how stressful life experiences can affect our abilities to learn and remember. Later in her career, she became intrigued by sex differences in the brain and especially how the female brain responds to stressful life events. She is especially interested in mental illnesses that are prevalent in women -- depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and how they are exacerbated by stressful life events that involve sexual aggression and abuse.

Outside of research, Dr. Shors exercises and meditates herself. She is also a mother who studies motherhood in her lab, and loves to travel to new and exciting countries.

For more information, visit http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~shors/index.htm

In the News

How Meditation and Running Can Help Fight Depression

NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt

Listening to the Experts Series

American Psychological Association 2015

Mental and Physical (MAP) Training: A Neurogenesis-Inspired Intervention to Enhance Brain Health

MAP Training is presented in Health Naturally, an online magazine that translates scientific findings into practical life applications for lay persons

Faith Matters: Prisoner Re-entry Conference filled with inspiration

Featured speaker and panel discussant about MAP Training and adolescent trauma at Governor McGreevy’s “Annual Prisoner Reentry Conference” (2015)

Publications

MAP training: combining meditation and aerobic exercise reduces depression and rumination while enhancing synchronized brain...

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Sexual Conspecific Aggressive Response (SCAR): A Model of Sexual Trauma that Disrupts Maternal Learning and Plasticity in the...

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Saving new brain cells

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Mental and Physical (MAP) Training: A Neurogenesis-Inspired Intervention that Enhances Health in Humans

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The adult brain makes new neurons and effortful learning keeps them alive

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Preparing for adulthood: Thousands upon thousands of new cells die are born during adolescence and effortful learning keeps...

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Neurogenesis in the adult is involved in the formation of trace memories

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Rumination in major depressive disorder is associated with impaired neural activation during conflict monitoring

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Awards

Women in Learning (WIL), 2011

Dr. Shors was the first recipient of Women in Learning (WIL) in 2011. This was awarded for her contribution to understanding the neuronal and psychological mechanisms of learning and memory.

Keynote Address for Eastern Psychological Association Annual Meeting, 2015

“MAP Training: A neurogenesis-inspired intervention for enhancing health in humans”

Distinguished Investigator Award, 2014

Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression

President, Pavlovian Society, 2001

“Pavlovian Investigator Award”, 1998

For meritorious achievement toward understanding factors in normal and abnormal behavior, Pavlovian Society