(NaturalNews) New research findings suggest that chronic stress over time creates changes in the brain, which might be helpful in explaining how long-term high stress levels can make sufferers more prone to mood disorders and anxiety later in life.
Daniela Kaufer, a UC Berkeley associate professor of integrative biology, and a team of colleagues found through a series of experiments on rats that chronic stress generates more myelin-producing cells and fewer neurons than normal. That resulted in an excess of myelin -- and as such, more white matter - in some areas of the brain, which then disrupted the delicate balance and timing of communication within the brain, The Times of India reported:
Kaufer's lab, which conducts research on the molecular and cellular effects of acute and chronic stress, focused in this study on neural stem cells in the hippocampus of the brains of adult rats. These stem cells were previously thought to mature only into neurons or a type of glial cell called an astrocyte.
The team has pheublisd its study in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
What it all means
Dr. Joseph Shrand, MD, an Instructor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Medical Director of CASTLE (Clean and Sober Teens Living Empowered), a brand new intervention unit for at-risk teens that is part of the highly respected High Point Treatment Center in Brockton, Mass., explained the relevance of the UC-Berkeley findings in an email to Natural News:
"Our brain is made up of cells called neurons which conduct electrical charges as a means to communicate with each other. Imagine a balloon with a long string, but the string is actually part of the balloon itself. The balloon is the cell body from where the message is generated, and the string is called the axon along which the message travels. Like any piece of wire, electricity is going to travel faster from one end to the other if that piece of wire is insulated with a sheath of rubber. Neurons are no different, but the insulation is called myelin, a fatty substance that wraps around the axon of the neuron, that string part of the balloon, which increases the efficiency of sending messages from one neuron to the other. The folks at UC Berkeley find that some brain cells are more myelinated than others, implying that the signals they send get to the other cells faster than from cells with less myelin.
"The cells that seem to have more myelin are involved in memory and emotions. A person with such a communication system could theoretically be hypersensitive to stressors that another person may let just slide off their back."
In further evaluating the research and its implications, clinical psychologist Matt Poinsett told Natural News: "If you think of the brain as a series of electrical connections, stress appears to be impacting how well the wires are insulated and how they connect. That would change how quickly information travels around the brain and what path it would take."
'New strategies must be devised now'
In practical terms, then, licensed marriage and family therapist Laurel Weirs of Ledyard, Conn., said, "It seems everyone has a certain capacity for handling stress."
"What really bothers one person may not be a problem for another," she told me. "This is an important point. It's the amount of 'perceived stress' that will add to mental health issues."
Poinsett said a number of factors can affect the correlation between chronic stress and mental illness.
"Often, if a child is growing up in an extremely high stress environment, it may be indicative of parents that suffer from mental illness and/or have limited coping skills. Both of those factors - beyond any biological changes - can contribute to increased vulnerability to mental illness through genetics and skills deficits," he said.
Sonia Krishna, a medical director of behavioral health in south Los Angeles, said the new research may lead to changes in how professionals view chronic stress and its long-term physical and mental effects.
"New strategies must be devised now that we know their brains have fundamentally changed. The idea of a 'chemical imbalance' may really be a 'neuronal imbalance,'" she told me.