An intellectual adventure

Wataru Inoue

Wataru Inoue, is on a research journey to unlock the mystery of stress-related disorders like PTSD and depression

By Crystal Mackay, MA’05

As someone who set out originally to explore the world and discover new places, Wataru Inoue, PhD, never expected that the most interesting journey would be understanding his own mind.

“When I started my undergrad I wanted to become an anthropologist or someone who went to the field and travelled the world,” he said. “As I travelled and visited new places, I started to realize I was more intrigued by the response that I had when I went to a new place instead of seeing it from the outside.”

That desire to understand how the brain works and how it influences our perception of the world was the initial spark in Inoue to become a neuroscientist examining the brain’s response to stress.

As one of Robarts Research Institute’s recruits and a new faculty member in Physiology and Pharmacology, Inoue and his team are looking for the mechanisms in the brain that allow the body to maintain a state of homeostasis. In other words, they are looking for the signals in the brain that cause it to regulate our heart rate, blood pressure, and the levels of hormones in a normal way and then are trying to understand what changes occur in stressful situations to alter that state.

The end goal is to discover why it is that some people are resilient to stress and some are more susceptible.

“In some contexts, feeling stressed is completely normal,” he said. “If you are being chased by a dog or a bear you should feel stressed (along with increased heart rate, raised blood pressure and high levels of stress hormones); however, some people are hyper-sensitive to stress, or even suffer continuous anxiety and the bodily responses to stress in the absence of a real problem. Those problems in stress sensitivity are very common in stress-related disorders like PTSD or depression.”

Inoue explains that the stress response is a very dynamic system and that every time a person or animal experiences a stressful situation, the brain changes itself slightly and tunes its stress sensitivity to better cope the next time they are faced with something similar. This concept, known as neuroplasticity, is the core for understanding how we adapt to stressful environments. And issues with this neuroplasticity are also the basis of stressrelated disorders.

The hope is that by better understanding these mechanisms in the brain, his team may eventually be able to identify targets for therapeutics to promote normal stress responses, and eliminate the problematic ones; but that, Inoue says, is still a fair way off.

“I’ve discovered that the more you learn, you also understand that you know so little,” he said. “Once you answer one question, you are then faced with 10 more questions and that endless journey is actually a very interesting intellectual adventure and that’s what I enjoy the most.

“Instead of going into field work, I go new places every time I answer a new question, and lucky for me the brain is full of those fascinating questions.”