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 SCI 369 - The Psychobiology of Stress: Health and Disease


​‘Imagine you are walking in a rural area enjoying nature. You are crossing a meadow with quietly grazing cows. All of a sudden, the herd is becoming annoyed and starts chasing you. You run for your life and jump over a wide ditch that normally would make you use a bridge or at least a pool stick for jumping. Looking back, the cows gaze at you surprisingly, and you start shaking…..’.

‘As a starter in a physical health training program you are asked to compete with a trained sportsman in a 10 minutes bicycle exercise contest. You lose the race, but you are quite satisfied with your performance….’.

‘You are a first year student at UCR and you have to give your first presentation in class. You feel nervous and tense, but are prepared for the best presentation ever. Your heart beats in your throat, but after a few minutes you start feeling relaxed. Afterwards, you receive a very positive feedback….’.

‘Stress’ is one of the most intriguing phenomena that affect our life as it is today. At the same time, however, do we know what we are talking about? There is no other word in the Anglo-Saxon language that is so ill-defined, or has so many meanings as the word ‘stress’.

Usually, when we talk about stress, we mean that life is heavy upon us. Stress is imbalance. Scientifically, when we talk about stress, we talk about the (psychobiological) stress response and stressors (stimuli) that are able to elicit this response. In this way, stress is conceptualized as a positive force that enables us to learn from encounters and adapt to our environment, only being disruptive when for one reason or the other our coping skills fail and our stress response becomes inadequate: without stress there is no life; with too much stress life becomes miserable!

The present course is interdisciplinary by excellence. It provides insight into today’s concepts of stress, the (psycho)biological mechanisms underlying the human stress response,  the autonomous nervous system, the neuro-endocrine pathways and the immune system. They all have their impact on health and disease.

The perception of stress is different for each individual and largely dependent on learned behavior and acquired skills. Learning is the result of the interactive play between nature and nurture. It is this concept of learning that is the underlying principle of behavioral medicine.

The involvement of stress and stress hormones in disease is illustrated by discussing depression as a chronic stress syndrome, the post-traumatic stress disorder as a worn out disease and the conduct disorder as a cold-hearted condition. Prudent steps towards new treatment strategies will be highlighted.

Then how and why is the one individual affected by stress where the other is not? The experience of stress and the ability to properly respond to stressful events are, again, the result of interplay between nature and nurture. It largely depends on the individual resilience of the different systems involved. This will be illustrated through the practical part of the course. Students design their own scientific stress experiment, following basic methodological principles for human research, and write a research proposal (group work). They take both the role of investigator and test-subject to experience the different situations, and understand the principals of individual variability, bias and confounding, controlled and uncontrolled designs. Psychological measures as well as bio-measures are collected and used as read-out of the stress response systems. Data results are presented to the group, discussed, and written down in a scientific report.

The course is highly interactive in nature: lectures, designing experiments and practical work. Basic lessons are alternated with lectures given by outstanding scientists in the specific research fields. They teach the latest state of the art, e.g. psychoneuroendocrinology, context learning, and the backbone of delinquent behavior.


Dr. Christine Gispen-de Wied  


The following is required in order to take this course: 

  • ​Two 200-levels in the life science and/or biomedical track

The following is recommended in order to take this course:

  • a course in cognitive science;
  • a course in psychology;