New research shows that there are crucial periods of early life in which a stressful event can reduce hippocampal volume in adolescence. In a study presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, Kathryn L. Humphreys and colleagues found that children who experienced a significant stressor before age 8 had smaller hippocampi in early adolescence than children who did not have a significant stressor early in life.
The severity of the stressors that occurred when children were between the ages of 0 and 2 predicted the volume of the hippocampus later in life. This was true to a lesser extent for stressful events that occurred between the ages of 3 and 5. No effect was seen for stressful events that took place between the ages of 6 and 8.
The period of sensitivity to stressful events between ages 0 and 2 and its effects on hippocampal volume could influence a variety of psychiatric outcomes in conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to schizophrenia in several studies. In one, infants with low vitamin D were more likely to develop schizophrenia in adulthood, but supplementation reduced this risk. A 2015 article by Venkataram Shivakumar and colleagues in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found that among patients with schizophrenia who were not currently taking (or in some cases, had never taken) antipsychotic medication, low levels of vitamin D were linked to smaller gray matter volume in the right hippocampus, an area involved in schizophrenia.
Vitamin D has neuroprotective effects and is important to normal brain development and function. Vitamin D is essential to the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that is important for learning and memory, and vitamin D also reduces oxidative stress. BDNF deficiency and oxidative stress have both been linked to schizophrenia, and they both can cause abnormalities in the hippocampus.
At the 2014 meeting of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology, researcher Booij reported that in humans, there is an interaction between adversity experienced during childhood, and an epigenetic variation in the short form of the serotonin transporter (5HT-T ss, or SLC6A4), which can influence hippocampal volume during depression.
Epigenetics refers to environmental influences on the way genes are transcribed. The impact of life experiences such as stress is not registered in DNA sequences, but can influence the structure of DNA or tightness of its packaging. Early life experiences, particularly psychosocial stress, can lead to the accumulation of methyl groups on DNA (a process called methylation), which generally constricts DNA’s ability to start transcription (turning on) of genes and the synthesis of the proteins the genes encode. DNA is tightly wound around proteins called histones, which can also be methylated or acetylated based on events in the environment. When histones are acetylated, meaning that acetyl groups are attached to them, DNA is wound around them more loosely, facilitating gene transcription (i.e. the reading out of the DNA code into messenger RNA, which then arranges amino acids in order to construct proteins). Conversely, histone methylation usually tightens the winding of DNA and represses transcription.
Booij followed 33 children who had experienced some form of adversity at a young age until they were 15 or 16, examining methylation of the serotonin transporter in their T cells and monocytes compared to 36 children who had not experienced adversity during childhood. He found that in children who had experienced abuse in childhood, the degree of that abuse was correlated with methylation of the serotonin transporter and was inversely related to the volume of the hippocampus, as measured using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Thus, child abuse yields lasting epigenetic effects (methylation of the serotonin transporter) and has anatomical consequences in teenagers, as seen in smaller hippocampi. These data parallel converse findings by Joan Luby et al. published in the journal PNAS in 2012, in which increased maternal warmth directed toward a child aged 4-7 was associated with increased volume of the hippocampus several years later.
Type 2 diabetes can damage the brain, particularly by reducing volume of the hippocampus, and frequently occurs in patients with bipolar disorder. A recent study of patients with bipolar disorder and abnormal glucose metabolism showed that patients with bipolar disorder who also had insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, or type 2 diabetes had smaller hippocampi than both patients with bipolar disorder and normal glucose function and normal control participants without a psychiatric disorder. In those with bipolar disorder and glucose abnormalities, age was associated with lower hippocampal volume to a greater extent than in bipolar patients with normal glucose function.
In the study, published by Tomas Hajek et al. in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, not only did diabetes or prediabetes reduce the size of the hippocampus, but also reduced gray matter in the cerebral cortex, including the insula.
The researchers hope that treating diabetes, or possibly even its initial symptoms, more effectively may prevent these gray matter losses and slow brain aging in patients with bipolar disorder.
Lithium is known for protecting neurons by inducing neurotrophic factors and inhibiting cell death factors. In a new study, other mood-stabilizing drugs had similar neuroprotective and neurotrophic effects on cultured neurons from the hippocampus.
At the 2014 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders, CH Lee et al. presented evidence that lithium, carbamazepine, valproic acid, and lamotrigine all increase the outgrowth of dendrites from these cultured neurons. Therapeutic levels of these drugs increased the production of proteins like brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), postsynaptic density protein-95 (PSD-95), neurolignin 1 (NLG 1), beta-neurexin, and synaptophysin. However, so far only lithium has been shown to increase the volume of the human hippocampus as measured with MRI.
In a 2013 study of children by Luby et al. in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, poverty in early childhood was associated with smaller white and gray matter in the cortex and with smaller volume of the amygdala and hippocampus when the children reached school age. The effects of poverty on hippocampal volume were mediated by whether the children experienced stressful life events and whether a caregiver was supportive or hostile.
The children were recruited from primary care and day care settings between the ages of three and six, and were studied for five to ten years. They were initially assessed annually for three to six years and information on psychosocial, behavioral, and developmental dimensions were collected. Then the children took part in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan and continued annual assessments that included information such as whether the children experienced stressful life events.
Previous research has shown that poverty affects children’s psychosocial development and economic success in adulthood. This research shows that poverty also affects brain development. The findings suggest important targets for intervention that could help prevent these developmental deficits.
There is some evidence that lithium can affect brain structure, particularly the size of various parts of the brain. A study by Hajek et al. presented at the 2013 meeting of the International Society of Bipolar Disorders examined patients with bipolar disorder who had either received lithium for at least two years (37 patients) or had received under three months of treatment with lithium (19 patients), and compared the size of the hippocampus in these two groups and one control group (50 people). The patients with bipolar disorder all had the disorder for at least 10 years (25 years on average) and had had a minimum of five episodes.
Those treated with lithium long-term had greater hippocampal volume than the non-lithium patients (despite having spent more time in episodes of illness), and equal volume to healthy controls. Measurements were collected via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and analyses were done two different ways to avoid being confounded by the changes lithium may have on water balance in the brain, a phenomenon that was recently found to affect MRI images.
Editor’s Note: These data add to the large number of studies in animals and humans indicating that lithium, in addition to preventing episodes and suicides, may have neurotrophic and neuroprotective effects.
As childhood obesity has increased over the past several decades, the metabolic syndrome has also become more prevalent among children and adolescents. The metabolic syndrome consists of five measures related to obesity: elevations in fasting glucose levels or insulin resistance, a high proportion of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) to HDL (“good” cholesterol), elevated triglycerides, hypertension, and abdominal obesity or high waist circumference. A patient with three of these abnormalities would be diagnosed with the metabolic syndrome.
In adults, the metabolic syndrome has been associated with neurocognitive impairments. Researchers decided to look at adolescents with the metabolic syndrome to determine whether these brain effects are a result of long-term metabolic impairment or whether they can take place after short-term periods of poor metabolism as well. In a study published by Yau et al. in the journal Pediatrics last year, 49 adolescents with the metabolic syndrome were compared to 62 adolescents without the syndrome who had been matched for similar age, socioeconomic status, school grade, gender, and ethnicity.
The adolescents with the metabolic syndrome had lower scores on tests of math, spelling, attention, and mental flexibility, as well as a trend for lower overall intelligence. In brain measures such as hippocampal volume, amount of brain cerebrospinal fluid, and microstructural integrity in white matter tracts, the seriousness of the metabolic syndrome correlated with the level of abnormality on these measures.
Editor’s Note: It seems as though even short-term problems with metabolism can lead to brain impairments like lower cognitive performance and decreased integrity of brain structures. These effects are even seen before vascular disease and type 2 diabetes are manifest.
It is doubly important, in terms of both cardiovascular and neurobiological risks, to look out for one’s medical and psychiatric health. Reducing the abnormal components of the metabolic syndrome should produce benefits for both the cardiovascular system and the central nervous system.
Almost 40% of patients with bipolar illness in the US have the metabolic syndrome, so considerable effort will be required to improve this public health crisis.
This editor (RM Post) in collaboration with Jacqueline Fleming and Flavio Kapczinski published the article “Neurobiological mechanisms of illness progression in the recurrent affective disorders” in the Journal of Psychiatric Research this year. The article built on several themes about the progression of bipolar illness that had been explored in previous research.
These themes include:
- The likely acceleration of repeated episodes as a function of the number of prior episodes (episode sensitization)
- The increased responsivity of the illness to repeated stressors (stress sensitization)
- The increased behavioral reactivity to repeated use of psychomotor stimulants such as cocaine (stimulant-induced behavioral sensitization)
Not only are these observations well documented in the scientific literature, but recent observations also suggest that each type of sensitization can show cross-sensitization to the other two types. That is, individuals exposed to repeated stressors are more likely both to experience affective illness episodes and to adopt comorbid substance abuse. In a similar way, episodes of an affective disorder and stressors may also be associated with the relapse into drug administration in those who have been abstinent.
In addition to these mechanisms of illness progression in the recurrent affective disorders, the new article reviews the literature showing that the number of affective episodes or the duration of the illness appear to be associated with a variety of other clinical and neurobiological variables.
The number of affective episodes a patient experiences is associated with the degree of cognitive dysfunction present in their bipolar illness, and experiencing more than 4 episodes of unipolar or bipolar depression is a risk factor for dementia in late life. A relative lack of response to most treatments is also correlated with the number of prior episodes, and this holds true for response to naturalistic treatment in general. While most of these data are correlational and the direction of causality cannot be ascertained for certain, it is likely that the number of affective episodes and/or their duration could account for and drive difficulties with treatment and with cognitive function.
If this were the case, one would expect to see a variety of neurobiological correlates with the number of prior episodes or duration of illness, and in the article we summarize those that have been found in unipolar and bipolar disorder. Considerable data indicate that cortical volume and degrees of prefrontal cortical dysfunction can vary as a function of number of prior episodes. There is evidence that increased activity of the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens are also related to episodes or duration of illness. In those with unipolar depression, the volume of the hippocampus is decreased with longer duration of illness. Read more
An article published by Medscape reports that in a recent study by Dr. Joan Luby of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, non-depressed preschool children whose parents showed more nurturing behaviors during a mildly stressful task were found to have hippocampal volume almost 10% greater than their peers whose parents showed fewer nurturing behaviors. The hippocampus affects cognitive functioning and emotion regulation.
Unfortunately, parental nurturing did not effect the hippocampal volume of children with early-onset depression.
Dr. Luby and colleagues think their findings could have “profound public health implications and suggest that greater public health emphasis on early parenting could be a very fruitful social investment.”
“The finding that early parenting support, a modifiable psychosocial factor, is directly related to healthy development of a key brain region known to impact cognitive functioning and emotion regulation opens an exciting opportunity to impact the development of children in a powerful and positive fashion”.