University of California, Berkeley, researchers have shown that chronic stress generates long-term changes in the brain that may explain why people suffering chronic stress are prone to mental problems such as anxiety and mood disorders later in life.
Their findings could lead to new therapies to reduce the risk of developing mental illness after stressful events.
Doctors know that people with stress-related illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), have abnormalities in the brain, including differences in the amount of gray matter versus white matter. Gray matter consists mostly of cells neurons, which store and process information, and support cells called glia while white matter is comprised of axons, which create a network of fibers that interconnect neurons. White matter gets its name from the white, fatty myelin sheath that surrounds the axons and speeds the flow of electrical signals from cell to cell.
How chronic stress creates these long-lasting changes in brain structure is a mystery that researchers are only now beginning to unravel.
In a series of experiments, Daniela Kaufer, UC Berkeley associate professor of integrative biology, and her colleagues, including graduate students Sundari Chetty and Aaron Freidman, discovered that chronic stress generates more myelin-producing cells and fewer neurons than normal. This results in an excess of myelin and thus, white matter in some areas of the brain, which disrupts the delicate balance and timing of communication within the brain.
"We studied only one part of the brain, the hippocampus, but our findings could provide insight into how white matter is changing in conditions such as schizophrenia, autism, depression, suicide, ADHD and PTSD," she said.
The hippocampus regulates memory and emotions, and plays a role in various emotional disorders.
Kaufer and her colleagues published their findings in the Feb. 11 issue of
|Contact: Robert Sanders|
University of California - Berkeley