I just came across this interesting article as I was Googling the long term effects of Burnout (because I still feel oddly "broken" and permanently changed nearly two years after going sick).
From a quick read, the article talks about enlarged amygdala, weakened connections between it and other brain structures, and problems with executive functioning - all of which I believe I've also read as features of autism (further hints of connections here in Lagrangian's summary of the Wikipedia entry for Amygdala in this thread: Are you good at identifying emotions feelings within yourself). So I'm wondering if in my case burnout intensified the existing effects of my own autism that I had been masking (& led to my discovery of my own undiagnosed autism). Note that I'm not at all suggesting that burnout might cause autism - that would be a silly leap and we all know that autism is a lifelong condition.
Coincidentally I also listened to a TED talk on executive function that highlighted that EF is needed when learning a new skill, before the automatic parts of the brain take over. I'm wondering if this means that masking asks a lot from the EF brain and places demands on them that eventually give in after years of over-use -> autistic burnout?
Anyway, I'm not drawing any conclusions at this stage (if ever). I have no particular experience in neurological research just an interest and personal experience of burnout and autism, and I thought this was interesting.
I'm not claiming that any of my rambling here is well-thought-through science or research, just a collection of smoking guns and interesting associations.
This is a really interesting article, largely because of the overlap of brain structures involved in Burnout and Autism.
Your article suggests that people suffering from burnout will have more pronounced thinning of the Medial Prefrontal Cortex, beyond what is expected due to the normal aging process. As well as larger Amygdala and shrinking in the Caudate Nucleus.
To summarise the brain structures and their function that are involved in both:
Various articles implicate the involvement of the Medial Prefrontal Cortex in decision making and memory and the ability to retrieve the best action or emotional response to specific events at a particular place and time (1). The Amygdala is responsible for the reactions to stimuli that elicit the emotion of fear. If the Amygdala is damaged or removed then the feeling of fear and thus the response to it is either severely impaired or completely removed (2). The Caudate Nucleus is thought to be involved in the storing and processing of memories and the use of information about past experiences to influence future actions and decisions. It is implied that it also plays a large part in the development and use of language and communication skills (3). Not only that but there are also studies that show evidence for a role of the Caudate Nucleus in OCD suggesting that if the Nucleus is unable to control the transmission of worrying and concerning impulses between the Thalamus and the Orbitofrontal Cortex this then alters the impact and influence of the stored memories about how to respond in a certain situation which then has a knock on effect on decisions and actions in response to certain stimuli (4).
With regards to Autism. Studies suggest that the different functioning in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex causes many of the behavioural difficulties in ASD due to differences in processing and integrating information from the fields of perception, memory, emotion and motor (5). There is a wealth of studies that see the Amygdala dysfunction as having a central role in the main symptoms of Autism due to the role it plays in social functioning and social behaviours (6, 7, 8, 9). There have also been found to be some abnormalities of the Caudate Nucleus in Autism, especially with regards to it's connections with other parts of the brain. This has been shown by some studies to influence stereotypical behaviours and executive function (10, 11).
Thus, in conclusion it would appear to be the case that the very parts of the human brain which are found to be affected by stress related burnout are also some of those that whose function is impaired in Autistic individuals. It could therefore be suggested that Autistic individuals are at a much higher risk of burnout, due to differences in their underlying neurological functional anatomy as compared to non-Autistic individuals.
I wonder if they thought to run the ADOS on the participants in the study that you cited? Just a thought....
5. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00074/full (also links on here to lots of other really good papers)
Please see also:
Right that's me done for the day with scientific research! Thank you for the distraction :-)
I've just gone back to the original article I mentioned and found this
"It’s also possible that individuals who have low executive functioning to begin with end up being more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress — ultimately resulting in higher rates of burnout."
which is very similar to what we were both saying.
There's definitely a good theoretical and experiential basis to support the idea that certain underlying neurological differences make a person more susceptible to the effects of stress and anxiety. The only problem with the articles that I found is that number 11 suggests that the Caudate Nucleus is enlarged in Autism as opposed to being smaller. However, I'd take a guess that as it is less stable to begin with that might make it more susceptible to the effects of stress and therefore more likely to shrink in Autistic as opposed to non-autistic people. I might have a look to see if can find any evidence to back up that theory next week when I'm less busy.
Interesting, I have crappy exec function and I'm really prone to burnout. Currently signed off with it.