Acute stress can alter the activity of certain genes, putting people at a heightened risk of further health problems, according to some new research.
A study undertaken at Ruhr-University Bochum, Switzerland examined gene segments which are relevant to biological stress regulation. According to the University’s research brief the research objective was to understand why stressful experiences and psychological trauma in early life are associated with alterations to the body’s DNA.
DNA is important because it provides the basis for cells to make the proteins that our bodies need. However, which proteins a cell produces depends on the cell type and the environment. One such environmental factor is stress and it is thought that people under extreme stress produce the wrong types of cellular materials.
For the study, according to the Healthy Mind, the researchers invited 76 participants, aged between 60 and 70 years, to undergo two types of stressful event: one was to take part in a mock job interview, and the other was to solve arithmetic problems under observation. Both these tests are commonly used to produce stress under laboratory conditions. The participants gave blood samples before the tests, and also twice afterwards: one ten minutes after (post-test), and another 1.5 hours after (follow-up). From these the researchers could measure the amount of DNA changes.
According to the science site io9, the outcome of the study indicated that acute stress can cause a significant increase in alternations to the gene that is linked directly to the production of a hormone regulating stress levels. The importance of this is that these so-termed “epigenetic changes” to DNA are important link between stress and chronic diseases such as cancer and depression.
The research was led by Professor Dr Gunther Meinlschmidt, of the clinic of psychosomatic medicine and psychotherapy at Ruhr-University and reported in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
The research paper reference is:
E. Unternaehrer, Pet al (2012): Dynamic changes in DNA methylation of stress associated genes (OXTR, BDNF) after acute psychosocial stress, Translational Psychiatry.