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City life bad for brain, study says: What's the fix?

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(CBS) Ever wonder why city slickers seem more stressed out than folks who live in the country? A new study suggests the answer may lie deep within our brains.

Previous research showed that people who live in cities have higher rates of anxiety and depression, but this is the first to pinpoint the changes in the brain that underlie the phenomenon.

For the study, published in the journal Nature, scientists from the University of Heidelberg and McGill University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of more than 100 students from various communities, large and small, in Germany. Each student was asked to complete a stressful task - solving tricky math problems as fast as possible while being subjected to criticism.

The results were striking. The brains of the urbanites showed higher levels of activity in the amygdala and the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC), two regions that previous research linked to mental illness. The bigger the city they lived in, the greater the activity in the amygdala - and the longer the subject had lived in a large city during childhood, the greater the activity in the pACC.

"I was surprised by the magnitude and specificity of the findings," said study author Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg. The next step, he said, would be to determine what it is about city life that makes it so stressful. Is it the crowding, the noise, the pollution - or something else? He said he hopes the answers might help urban planners design cities more conducive to mental health.

In the meantime, what's the take-away message for city dwellers? Ditch the metropolis and move to the mountains? Fuhgeddaboudit.

"It's not really feasible," Meyer-Lindenberg said jokingly to CBS News. "If everyone lived in the country, the country would be pretty crowded." More than half the world's population already lives in cities, a figure that's expected to grow to nearly 70 percent by 2050.

And while urban living may spark mental illness, it also brings better health care, nutrition and sanitation. 

To control stress, Meyer-Lindenberg said, city dwellers might try meditation, which can impact neural circuitry. If that doesn't help, he recommends a weekend getaway, adding,  "It doesn't hurt to occasionally get out into the country."