Bruce McEwen, Pioneer Researcher on Stress, Dies at 81
The esteemed neuroscientist was a founding member of Everyday Health’s Wellness Advisory Board.
Bruce S. McEwen, PhD, a pioneering researcher and one of the world’s authorities on stress, died January 2 after a brief illness. He was 81.
Dr. McEwen was the Alfred E. Mirsky Professor and head of the neuroendocrinology lab at the Rockefeller University in New York City.
McEwen was a founding member of the Wellness Advisory Board at Everyday Health, where he helped architect the United States of Stress Special Report.
He was perhaps best known for showing how stress hormones can reshape neural circuits and brain structures.
Reflecting on his years of stress research in a 2018 interview, McEwen told Everyday Health, “I sometimes call our finding the ‘gateway’ to studying how hormones affect many aspects of brain function.”
McEwen’s work and the research it inspired also points to opportunities for interventions that can reverse the effects of toxic stress. In an Everyday Health interview, McEwen noted that the brain is more “plastic” or malleable during times of transition, such as young adulthood, pregnancy, and menopause.
“People are more likely to make changes during periods of transition,” McEwen said, “and the brain is more likely to show adaptive plasticity.”
The challenge, he said, is to find ways of facilitating brain plasticity: “To get the brain ‘unstuck’ and promote adaptation to a new, more positive environment.” He offered physical activity as an example of an intervention that benefits the brain and body.
In recent years, McEwen led research on novel antidepressants that act rapidly on a subtype of major depression and on repurposing a drug, riluzole, to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease.
With his wife, Karen Bulloch, PhD, a Rockefeller research associate professor, he was exploring the presence of immune cells in the brain that play a role in inflammation and neurodegenerative disease. He also studied how sex hormones affect the central nervous system.
McEwen served on national research initiatives including the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health and the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. He also coauthored the books The End of Stress as We Know It (2002) and The Hostage Brain (1994).
“Bruce was a pioneer in rigorously bridging the gap between cellular biochemistry and human health and behavior,” said Richard Lifton, MD, PhD, Rockefeller’s president, quoted on the university’s website.