Posts Tagged ‘Stress’

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You already know this, but when you are stressed out (chronic stress), your brain doesn’t work very wellThat’s right – just when you need it most – your brain has a way of letting you down!

Here are a few things that happen to the very cells (in the hippocampus) that you rely on:

reorganization within mossy fiber terminals
loss of excitatory glutamatergic synapses
reduction in the surface area of postsynaptic densities
marked retraction of thorny excrescences
alterations in the lengths of the terminal dendritic segments of pyramidal cells
reduction of the dorsal anterior CA1 area volume

Thanks brain!  Thanks neurons for abandoning me when I need you most!  According to this article, these cellular changes lead to, “impaired hippocampal involvement in episodic, declarative, contextual and spatial memory – likely to debilitate an individual’s ability to process information in new situations and to make decisions about how to deal with new challenges.” UGH!

Are our cells making these changes for a reason?  Might it be better for cells to remodel temporarily rather than suffer permanent, life-long damage?  Perhaps.  Perhaps there are molecular pathways that can lead the reversal of these allostatic stress adaptations?

Check out this recent paper: “A negative regulator of MAP kinase causes depressive behavior” [doi 10.1038/nm.2219]  the authors have identified a gene – MKP-1 – a phosphatase that normally dephosphorylates various MAP kinases involved in cellular growth, that, when inactivated in mice, produces animals that are resistant to chronic unpredictable stress.  Although its known that MKP-1 is needed to limit immune responses associated with multi-organ failure during bacterial infections, the authors suggest:

“pharmacological blockade of MKP-1 would produce a resilient of anti-depressant response to stress”

Hmmm … so Mother Nature is using the same gene to regulate the immune response (turn it off so that it doesn’t damage the rest of the body) and to regulate synaptic growth (turn it off – which is something we DON’T want to do when we’re trying to recover from chronic stress)?  Mother Nature gives us MKP-1 so I can survive an infection, but the same gene prevents us from recovering (finding happiness) from stress?

Of course, we do not need to rely only on pharmacological solutions.  Exercise & social integration are cited by these authors as the top 2 non-medication strategies.

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Mother Nature
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The current buzz about about GWAS  and longevity and GWAS in general has stirred up many longstanding inconvenient issues that arise when trying to interpret the results of very large, expensive and worthwhile genetic studies.  Its seems that Mother Nature does not give up her secrets without a fight.

One of the most common “inconvenient issues” is the fact that so many of the SNPs that come out of these studies are located far away from protein-encoding exons.  This ubiquitous observation is almost always followed with, “well, maybe its in linkage disequilibrium with a more functional SNP” or something along these lines – wherein the authors get an automatic pass.  OK by me.

Another “inconvenient issue” is the fact that many of these SNPs are of minimal effect and don’t exactly add up or interact to account for the expected heritability.  This problem of “missing heritability” is a big one (see some new insights in the latest issue of Nature Genetics) leading many to suspect that the effects of genes are dependent on complex interactions with each other and the environment.

A recent paper, “A map of open chromatin in human pancreatic islets” [doi:10.1038/ng.530] by Gaulton and colleagues caught my eye because it seems to shed light on both of these particular inconvenient issues.  The authors find that the diabetes risk variant rs7903146 in the TCF7L2 gene is both located in an intron and subject to epigenetic regulation (our sedentary, high-fat, high-stress lives can potentially interact with the genome by causing epigenetic change).

It appears that the T-allele of the intronic rs7903146 is correlated with a more open, transcription-prone form of DNA/chromatin than is the C-allele. The authors confirmed this using both chromatin mapping and gene expression assays on pancreatic islet cells harvested from non-diabetic donors and islet cell-lines.  The results suggest that the risk-conferring T-allele of this intronic SNP may be driving expression (gain-of-function) of the TCF7L2 gene.  What types of environmental stimuli might also impact the opening and closing of chromatin at this location?

This type of interplay of environment, genome and epigenome is probably rampant in the area of brain and behavior – so perhaps the study of diabetes will provide some clues to the many GWAS SNPs that are far away from exons. More on the genetics of epigenetics here.

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Corticotropin-releasing hormone
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According to the authors of  “Protective effect of CRHR1 gene variants on the development of adult depression following childhood maltreatment: replication and extension”  [PMID: 19736354], theirs is “the first instance of Genes x Environment research that stress has been ascertained by more than 1 study using the same instrument“.  The gene they speak of is the Corticotropin-releasing hormone receptor 1 (CRHR1) gene (SNPs rs7209436, rs110402, rs242924 which can form a so-called T-A-T haplotype which has been associated with protection from early life stress (as ascertained using the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire CTQ)).

The research team examined several populations of adults and, like many other studies, found that early life stress was associated with symptoms of depressive illness but, like only 1 previous study, found that the more T-A-T haplotypes a person has (0,1,or 2) the less likely they were to suffer these symptoms.

Indeed, the CRHR1 gene is an important player in a complex network of hormonal signals that regulate the way the body (specifically the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis) transduces the effects of stress.  So it seems quite reasonable to see that individual differences in ones ability to cope with stress might correlate with genotype here.   The replication seems like a major step forward in the ongoing paradigm shift from “genes as independent risk factors” to “genetic risk factors being dependent on certain environmental forces”.  The authors suggest that a the protective T-A-T haplotype might play a role in the consolidation of emotional memories and that CRHR1 T-A-T carriers might have a somewhat less-efficient emotional memory consolidation (sort of preventing disturbing memories from making it into long-term storage in the first place?) – which is a very intriguing and testable hypothesis.

On a more speculative note … consider the way in which the stress responsivity of a developing child is tied to its mother’s own stress responsivity.  Mom’s own secretion of CRH from the placenta is known to regulate gestational duration and thus the size, heartiness and stress responsiveness of her newborn.  The genetic variations are just passed along from generation to generation and provide some protection here and there in an intertwined cycle of life.

The flowers think they gave birth to seeds,
The shoots, they gave birth to the flowers,
And the plants, they gave birth to the shoots,
So do the seeds they gave birth to plants.
You think you gave birth to the child.
None thinks they are only entrances
For the life force that passes through.
A life is not born, it passes through.

anees akbar

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If you’re a coffee drinker, you may have noticed the new super-sized portions available at Starbucks.  On this note, it may be worth noting that caffeine is a potent psychoactive substance of which – too much – can turn your buzz into a full-blown panic disorder.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for psychiatry outlines a number of caffeine-related conditions mostly involving anxieties that can arise when the natural alertness-promoting effects are pushed to extremes.  Some researchers have begun to explore the way the genome interacts with caffeine and it is likely that many genetic markers will surface to explain some of the individual differences in caffeine tolerance.

Here’s a great paper, “Association between ADORA2A and DRD2 Polymorphisms and Caffeine-Induced Anxiety” [doi: 10.1038/npp.2008.17] wherein polymorphisms in the adenosine A2A receptor (ADORA2A encodes the protein that caffeine binds to and antagonizes) – as well as the dopamine D2 receptor (DRD2 encodes a protein whose downstream signals are normally counteracted by A2A receptors) — show associations with anxiety after the consumption of 150mg of caffeine (about an average cup of coffee – much less than the super-size, super-rich cups that Starbucks sells).  The variants, rs5751876 (T-allele), rs2298383 (T-allele) and rs4822492 (G-allele) from the ADORA2A gene as well as rs1110976 (-/G genotype) from the DRD2 gene showed significant increases in anxiety in a test population of 102 otherwise-healthy light-moderate regular coffee drinkers.

My own 23andMe data only provides a drop of information suggesting I’m protected from the anxiety-promoting effects.  Nevertheless, I’ll avoid the super-sizes.
rs5751876 (T-allele)  C/C – less anxiety
rs2298383 (T-allele) – not covered
rs4822492 (G-allele) – not covered
rs1110976 (-/G genotype) – not covered

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We hope, that you choke, that you choke.
Image by Corrie… via Flickr

Coping with fear and anxiety is difficult.  At times when one’s life, livelihood or loved one’s are threatened, we naturally hightenen our senses and allocate our emotional and physical resources for conflict.  At times, when all is well, and resources, relationships and relaxation time are plentiful, we should unwind and and enjoy the moment.  But most of us don’t.  Our prized cognitive abilities to remember, relive and ruminate on the bad stuff out there are just too well developed – and we suffer – some more than others  (see Robert Saplosky’s book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” and related video lecture (hint – they don’t get ulcers because they don’t have the cognitive ability to ruminate on past events).  Such may be the flip side to our (homo sapiens) super-duper cognitive abilities.

Nevertheless, we try to understand our fears and axieties and understand their bio-social-psychological bases. A recent paper entitled, “A Genetically Informed Study of the Association Between Childhood Separation Anxiety, Sensitivity to CO2, Panic Disorder, and the Effect of Childhood Parental Loss” by Battaglia et al. [Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66(1):64-71] brought to mind many of the complexities in beginning to understand the way in which some individuals come to suffer more emotional anguish than others.  The research team addressed a set of emotional difficulties that have been categorized by psychiatrists as “panic disorder” and involving sudden attacks of fear, sweating, racing heart, shortness of breath, etc. which can begin to occur in early adulthood.

Right off the bat, it seems that one of the difficulties in understanding such an emotional state(s) are the conventions (important for $$ billing purposes) used to describe the relationship between “healthy” and “illness” or “disorder”.  I mean, honestly, who hasn’t experienced what could be described as a mild panic disorder once or twice?  I have, but perhaps that doesn’t amount to a disorder.  A good read on the conflation of normal stress responses and disordered mental states is “Transforming Normality into Pathology: The DSM and the Outcomes of Stressful Social Arrangements” by Allan V. Horwitz.

Another difficulty in understanding how and why someone might experience such a condition has to do with the complexities of their childhood experience (not to mention genes). Child development and mental health are inextrictably related, yet, the relationship is hard to understand.  Certainly, the function of the adult brain is the product of countless developmental unfoldings that build upon one another, and certainly there is ample evidence that when healthy development is disrupted in a social or physical way, the consequences can be very unfortunate and long-lasting. Yet, our ability to make sense of how and why an individual is having mental and/or emotional difficulty is limited.  Its a complex, interactive and emergent set of processes.

What I liked about the Battaglia et al., article was the way in which they acknowledged all of these complexities and – using a multivariate twin study design – tried to objectively measure the effects of genes and environment (early and late) as well as candidate biological pathways (sensitivity to carbon dioxide).  The team gathered 346 twin pairs (equal mix of MZ and DZ) and assessed aspects of early and late emotional life as well as the sensitivity to the inhalation of 35% CO2 (kind of feels like suffocating and is known to activate fear circuitry perhaps via the ASC1a gene).   The basic notion was to parcel out the correlations between early emotional distress and adult emotional distress as well as with a very specific physiological response (fear illicited by breathing CO2).  If there were no correlation or covariation between early and late distress (or the physiological response) then perhaps these processes are not underlain by any common mechanism.

However, the team found that there was covariation between early life emotion (criteria for separation anxiety disorder) and adult emotion (panic disorder) as well as the physiological/fear response illicited by CO2.  Indeed there seems to be a common, or continuous, set of processes whose disruption early in development can manifest as emotional difficulty later in development.  Furthermore, the team suggests that the underlying unifying or core process is heavily regulated by a set of additive genetic factors.  Lastly, the team finds that the experience of parental loss in childhood increased (but not via an interaction with genetic variation) the strength of the covariation between early emotion, late emotion and CO2 reactivity.  The authors note several limitations and cautions to over-interpreting these data – which are from the largest such study of its kind to date.

For individuals who are tangled in persistent ruminations and emotional difficulties, I don’t know if these findings help.  They seem to bear out some of the cold, cruel logic of life and evolution – that our fear systems are great at keeping us alive when we’ve had adverse experience in childhood, but not necessarily happy.  On the other hand, the covariation is weak, so there is no such destiny in life, even when dealt unfortunate early experience AND genetic risk.  I hope that learning about the science might help folks cope with such cases of emotional distress.

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Some quick sketches that might help put the fast-growing epigenetics and cognitive development literature into context.  Visit the University of Utah’s Epigenetics training site for more background!

The genome is just the A,G,T,C bases that encode proteins and other mRNA molecules.  The “epi”genome are various modification to the DNA – such as methylation (at C residues) – and acetylation of histone proteins.   These changes help the DNA form various secondary and tertiary structures that can facilitate or block the interaction of DNA with the transcriptional machinery.

When DNA is highly methylated, it generally is less accessible for transcription and hence gene expression is reduced.  When histone proteins (purple blobs that help DNA coil into a compact shape) are acetylated, the DNA is much more accessible and gene expression goes up.

We know that proper epigenetic regulation is critical for cognitive development because mutations in MeCP2 – a protein that binds to methylated C residues – leads to Rett syndrome.  MeCP2 is normally responsible for binding to methylated DNA and recruiting histone de-acetylases (HDACs) to help DNA coil and condense into a closed form that is inaccessible for gene expression (related post here).

When DNA is accessible for gene expression, then it appears that – during brain development – there are relatively more synaptic spines produced (related post here).  Is this a good thing? Rett syndrome would suggest that – NO – too many synaptic spines and too much excitatory activity during brain development may not be optimal.  Neither is too little excitatory (too much inhibitory) activity and too few synaptic spines.  It is likely that you need just the right balance (related post here). Some have argued (here) that autism & schizophrenia are consequences of too many & too few synapses during development.

The sketch above illustrates a theoretical conjecture – not a scenario that has been verified by extensive scientific study. It tries to explain why epigenetic effects can, in practice, be difficult to disentangle from true (changes in the A,G,T,C sequence) genetic effects.  This is because – for one reason – a mother’s experience (extreme stress, malnutrition, chemical toxins) can – based on some evidence – exert an effect on the methylation of her child’s genome.  Keep in mind, that methylation is normal and widespread throughout the genome during development.  However, in this scenario, if the daughter’s behavior or physiology were to be influenced by such methylation, then she could, in theory, when reaching reproductive age, expose her developing child to an environment that leads to altered methylation (shown here of the grandaughter’s genome).  Thus, an epigenetic change would look much like there is a genetic variant being passed from one generation to the next, but such a genetic variant need not exist (related post here, here) – as its an epigenetic phenomenon.  Genes such as BDNF have been the focus of many genetic/epigenetic studies (here, here) – however, much, much more work remains to determine and understand just how much stress/malnutrition/toxin exposure is enough to cause such multi-generational effects.  Disentangling the interaction of genetics with the environment (and its influence on the epigenome) is a complex task, and it is very difficult to prove the conjecture/model above, so be sure to read the literature and popular press on these topics carefully.

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We are all familiar with the notion that genes are NOT destiny and that the development of an individual’s mind and body occur in a manner that is sensitive to the environment (e.g. children who eat lots of healthy food grow bigger and stronger than those who have little or no access to food).  In the case of the brain, one of the ways in which the environment gets factored into development – is via so-called “sensitive periods” where certain parts of the brain transiently rely on sensory experience in order to develop.  Children born with cataracts, for example, will have much better vision if the cataracts are removed in the first few weeks of life rather than later on.  This is because the human visual system has a “sensitive period” early in development where it is extra-sensitive to visual input and, after which, the function and connectivity of various parts of the system is – somewhat permanently – established for the rest of the person’s life.  Hence, if there is little visual input (cataracts) during the sensitive period, then the visual system is somewhat permanently unable to process visual information – even if the cataracts are subsequently removed.  (To learn more about this topic, visit Pawan Sinha’s lab at M.I.T and his Project Prakash intervention study on childhood blindness.)

What the heck is an “in”sensitive period then?   Well, whereas visual input is clearly a “good thing” for the sensitive period of visual development, perhaps some inputs are “bad” and it may be useful to shield or protect the brain from exposure.  Maybe some environmental inputs are “bad” and one would not want the developing brain to be exposed to them and say, “OK, this (bad stuff) is normal“.  As a parent, I am constantly telling my children that the traffic-filled street is a “bad place” and, like all parents, I would not want my children to think that it was OK to wander into the street.  Clearly, I want my child to recognize the car-filled street as a “bad thing”.

In the developing brain, it turns out that there are some “bad things” that one would NOT like (the brain) to get accustomed to.  Long-term exposure to glucocorticoids is one example – well-known to cause a type of neuronal remodelling in the hippocampus, that is associated with poor cognitive performance (visit Bruce McEwen’s lab at Rockefeller University to learn more about this).  Perhaps an “in”sensitive period – where the brain is insensitive to glucocorticoids – is one way to teach the brain that glucocorticoids are “bad” and DO NOT get too familiar with them (such a period does actually occur during early post-natal mammalian development).  Of course, we do need our brains to mount an acute stress response, if and when, we are being threatened, but it is also very important that the brain learn to TURN-OFF the acute stress response when the threat has passed – an extensive literature on the deleterious effects of chronic exposure to stress bears this out.  Hence, the brain needs to learn to recognize the flow of glucocorticoids as something that needs to be shut down.

OK, so our developing brain needs to learn what/who is “good vs. bad”.  Perhaps sensitive and insensitive periods help to reinforce this learning – and also – to cement learning into the system in a sort of permanent way (I’m really not sure if this is the consensus view, but I’ll try and podcast interview some of the experts here asap).  In any case, in the case of the visual system, it is clear that the lack of visual input during the sensitive period has long lasting consequences.  In the case of the stress response, it is also clear that if there is untoward stress early in development, one can be (somewhat) destined to endure a lifetime of emotional difficulty.  Previous posts here, here, here cover research on behavioral/genomic correlates of early life stress.

Genes meet environment in the epigenome during sensitive and insensitive periods?

As stated at the outset – genes are not destiny.  The DNA cannot encode a system that knows who/what is good vs. bad, but rather can only encode a system of molecular parts that can assemble to learn these contingencies on the fly.  During sensitive periods in the visual system, cells in the visual system are more active and fire more profusely during the sensitive period. This extra firing leads to changes in gene expression in ways that (somewhat) permanently set the connectivity, strength and sensitivity of visual synapses.  The expression of neuroligins, neurexins, integrins and all manner of extracellular proteins that stabilize synaptic connections are well-known tagets of activity-induced gene expression.  Hence the environment “interacts” with the genome via neuronal firing which induces gene expression which – in turn – feeds back and modulates neuronal firing.  Environment –> neuronal firing –> gene expression –> modified neuronal firing.  OK.

Similarly, in the stress response system, the environment induces changes in the firing of cells in the hypothalamus which leads (through a series of intermediates) to the release of glucocorticoids.  Genes induced during the firing of hypothalamic cells and by the release of glucocorticoid can modify the organism’s subsequent response to stressful events.  Environment –> neuronal firing –> gene expression –> modified neuronal firing.  OK.

Digging deeper into the mechanism by which neuronal firing induces gene expression, we find an interesting twist.   Certainly there is a well-studied mechanism wherein neuronal firing causes Ca++ release which activates gene expression of neuroligins, neurexins, integrins and all manner of extracellular proteins that stabilize synaptic connections – for many decades.  There is another mechanism that can permanently mark certain genes and alter their levels of expression – in a long-lasting manner.  These are so-called epigenetic mechanisms such as DNA methylation and acetylation.  As covered here and here, for instance, Michael Meaney’s lab has shown that DNA CpG methylation of various genes can vary in response to early-life stress and/or maternal care. In some cases, females who were poorly cared for, may, in turn, be rather lousy mothers themselves as a consequence of these epigenetic markings.

A new research article, “Dynamic DNA methylation programs persistent adverse effects of early-life stress” by Chris Murgatroyd and colleagues [doi:10.1038/nn.2436] explores these mechanisms in great detail.  The team explored the expression of the arginine vasopressin (AVP) peptide – a gene which is important for healthy social interaction and social-stress responsivity.  Among many other interesting results, the team reports that early life stress (using a mouse model) leads to lower levels of methylation in the 3rd CpG island which is located downstream in a distal gene-expression-enhancer region.  In short, more early-life stress was correlated with less methylation, more AVP expression which is known to potentiate the release of glucocorticoids (a bad thing).   The team reports that the methyl binding MeCP2 protein, encoded by the gene that underlies Rett syndrome, acts as a repressor of AVP expression – which would normally be a good thing since it would keep AVP levels (and hence glucocorticoid levels) down.  But unfortunately, early-life stress removes the very methyl groups to which MeCP2 binds and also the team reports that parvocelluar neuronal depolarization leads to phosphorylation (on serine residue #438) of MeCP2 – a form of MeCP2 that is less accessible to its targets.  So, in  a manner similar to other examples, early life stress can have long-lasting effects on gene expression via an epigenetic mechanism – and disables an otherwise protective mechanism that would shield the organism from the effects of stress.  Much like in the case of Rett syndrome (as covered here) it seems that when MeCP2 is bound – then it silences gene expression – which would seem to be a good thing when it comes to the case of AVP.

So who puts these epigenetic marks on chromosomes and why?

I’ll try and explore this further in the weeks ahead.  One intriguing idea about why methylation has been co-opted among mammals, has to do with the idea of parent-offspring conflict.  According to David Haig, one of the experts on this topic, males have various incentives to cause their offspring to be large and fast growing, while females have incentive to combat the genomic tricks that males use, and to keep their offspring smaller and more manageable in size.  The literature clearly show that genes that are marked or methylated by fathers (paternally imprinted genes) tend to be growth promoting genes and that maternally imprinted genes tend to be growth inhibitors.  One might imagine that maternally methylated genes might have an impact on maternal care as well.

Lastly, the growth promoting/inhibiting effects of paternal/maternal genes and gene markings is now starting to be discussed somewhat in the context of autism/schizophrenia which have have been associated with synaptic under-/over-growth, respectively.

Building a brain is already tough enough – but to have to do it amidst an eons-old battle between maternal and paternal genomes.  Sheesh!  More on this to come.

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