The stressed out brain

November 8, 2013 by Angela Herring, Northeastern University

Clinical studies of adolescents suffering from depression have shown an interesting connection between early life stress and the immune system. "Those who have experienced childhood trauma and adversity tend to have higher levels of inflammation biomarkers in their blood," explained Heather Brenhouse, an assistant professor of psychology at Northeastern University.

Many of the emotional and behavioral problems associated with early don't appear until adolescence, she said, "so you've got this group of kids who will go on to be sick, but you can't identify them early." If, however, those inflammation biomarkers are present before clinical problems arise, then doctors could use them to predict future .

Backed by a new grant from the National Institutes of Health, Brenhouse is investigating whether such biomarkers are present in rat models that experience early life stress as well as how inflammation may be linked to problems that give rise to mental illness. Understanding that connection, she said, could reveal new treatment options in addition to early detection opportunities provided by biomarkers.

In previous research, Brenhouse found evidence of inflammation in the brains of adolescent animals that were separated from their mothers during their youth. When she looked for similar evidence in juvenile animals, however, she came up empty handed.

For her new study, Brenhouse will be taking small blood samples to test for cytokines—molecules released during an immune response—at various points before adolescence. Over time, she will closely monitor for signs of cognitive disorders during adolescence.

At the same time, she will investigate how early life stress changes the brain's neural circuitry in these adolescents, particularly focusing on identifying how significant the role of the NR2A—of a particular type of neurotransmitter receptor in the prefrontal cortex—plays in mental illness caused by early life stress. These receptors, she said, bind a molecule called glutamate, which is implicated in diseases such as schizophrenia. In animals with early life stress, the concentration of NR2As is higher.

"We know that NR2A is upregulated," she said, we just don't know if it's important yet."

Brenhouse's work will also involve analyzing whether blocking inflammation changes how these NR2A receptors functions.

"Our nervous system and our are constantly in communication, for good reason," Brenhouse said. "Think about it: when you're sick, you need to behave differently." So-called "sickness behavior," she said, is one of the easiest ways to think about the connection between the two systems.

When it comes to stress, however, the story is a little more complicated. In some cases, stress activates the immune system, while in others it deactivates it. "We're trying to figure out how , in particular, changes the development of the immune system and how that winds up leading to neuroinflammation later on."

Explore further: Hypersensitivity to pain produced by early life stress is worsened by later stress exposure

Related Stories

Hypersensitivity to pain produced by early life stress is worsened by later stress exposure

November 5, 2013
Childhood neglect and abuse, whether physical or psychological, confers a lifetime vulnerability to stress, anxiety, and mood problems. Such early-life stress is also suspected to contribute to the development of chronic ...

Biomarkers to finetune depression treatment

November 8, 2013
The use of inflammatory and oxidative stress biomarkers in psychiatry may have the potential to improve treatment efficacy and aid in the diagnosis of major depression, a review has found.

Children with behavioral problems more at risk of inflammation

September 5, 2013
Children with behavioral problems may be at risk of many chronic diseases in adulthood including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, as well as inflammatory illnesses (conditions which are caused by cell damage).

Effects of chronic stress can be traced to your genes

November 5, 2013
New research shows that chronic stress changes gene activity in immune cells before they reach the bloodstream. With these changes, the cells are primed to fight an infection or trauma that doesn't actually exist, leading ...

How are children affected by maternal anxiety and depression?

October 24, 2013
Maternal symptoms of anxiety and depression increased the risk of emotional and disruptive problem behaviors in children as early as 18 months of age, according to new research findings from the TOPP study. The risk persisted ...

What does chronic stress in adolescence mean at the molecular level?

March 7, 2012
Chronic stress has a more powerful effect on the brain during adolescence than in adulthood and now there's proof at the molecular level, according to findings published in Neuron by University at Buffalo researchers.

Recommended for you

Study of learning and memory problems in OCD helps young people unlock potential at school

January 22, 2018
Adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have widespread learning and memory problems, according to research published today. The findings have already been used to assist adolescents with OCD obtain the help ...

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.