In research presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, Jonathan P. Godbout described how an immune reaction to repeated stressors may lead to anxious behaviors in mice.
Mice were repeatedly defeated by a larger animal, a form of stress that produces a depression-like state. This provoked an immune response in the mice—the release of a type of white blood cells called monocytes from the bone marrow into the circulatory system. These inflammatory monocytes then traveled to the brain and spleen, attracted by signaling proteins called chemokines. The monocytes in turn produced inflammatory marker interleukin-1beta.
The defeat stress also provoked a reaction in the central nervous system, where microglia were activated.
These changes produced inflammation and anxiety-like behaviors in the mice. Blocking the microglial activation, monocyte recruitment to the brain, or interleukin-1beta signaling each reversed the anxiety-like behaviors.
Another researcher, Scott Russo, has shown that leukocytes, another type of white blood cells, secrete inflammatory interleukin-6 following defeat stress, and blocking this secretion prevents defeat stress–related behaviors.
Depression and bipolar disorder are associated with increases in markers of inflammation that can be found in the brain and blood. It is increasingly clear that the mechanisms that cause depression are not just in the brain, but actually throughout the body. These include two signaling systems that begin in the bone marrow and the spleen.
When a small mouse is repeated defeated by a larger animal, they show depression-like symptoms known as defeat stress. Animal studies have shown that stress and danger signals are perceived and relayed to the amygdala and the hypothalamus. The sympathetic nervous system releases the neurotransmitter norepinephrine into bone marrow, where stem cells are turned into activated monocytes (a type of white blood cells) that are then released into the blood. The monocytes travel to the brain, leading to the activation of more inflammatory cells.
Blocking part of this process can prevent the depression-like behaviors from occurring. If the bone marrow monocytes are blocked from entering the brain, inflammation and defeat stress behaviors like social avoidance do not occur. However, if there is a second bout of defeat stress, primed monocytes that have been stored in the spleen are released and travel to the brain, producing further increases in inflammatory cells and even more defeat stress behaviors.
If these monocytes from the spleen are blocked, the inflammation and the reaction to the new stressor do not occur.
Stress also activates lymphocytes (another type of white blood cells) to secrete the inflammatory cells Il-6. If this Il-6 secretion is inhibited, defeat stress behaviors can be prevented.
Defeat stress also leads to the release of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Some of this cascade begins in the brain, which evaluates stressors and releases IL-1 beta, another type of inflammatory cell. It slows down the production of glutamate, while IL-6 can endanger neurons and is associated with anhedonia—loss of interest in pleasurable activities. This cascade also leads to the production of another type of inflammatory cell, TNF-alpha, which has adverse effects on biochemistry, brain, and behavior.
This understanding of the role of the brain and body provides new targets for drug development. If inflammatory processes are blocked, defeat stress behaviors do not occur. Researcher Michael D. Weber and colleagues described this process in detail in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews in 2017.
Together these observations suggest that inflammatory processes in the body are crucial to the development of some stress- and inflammation-related depressive behaviors.
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).
In new research presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, researcher Tracy Barbour and colleagues revealed that youth with a family history of depression showed more amygdala activation in response to a threat than people without a family history of depression. This amygdala hyperactivity was linked to low resilience to stress and predicted worsening depressive symptoms over the following year.
In the study, 72 non-depressed youth were shown images of cars or human faces or cars that seemed to loom in a threatening way. Brain scans showed increased amygdala activity in participants with a family history of depression compared to those without such a history.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped part of the brain in the temporal lobe that has been linked to emotional reactions and memory, decision-making, and anxiety.
Rodents who are repeatedly defeated by larger animals often exhibit depression-like behaviors. In new research that researcher Georgia E. Hodes presented at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, animals who are susceptible to these social defeat stress behaviors showed immune irregularities, including high levels of the inflammatory marker interleukin-6.
An intervention to prevent the mice from secreting interleukin-6 in blood and bone marrow took away their susceptibility to social defeat stress. When bone marrow from rodents with no interleukin-6 was transplanted into susceptible mice, the recipients showed resilience to social defeat stress. Conversely, a transplant from susceptible mice to those mice without IL-6 led to social defeat stress in the previously “immune” mice.
This research shows that the peripheral immune system, including blood and bone marrow, plays an important role in depression-like behaviors in mice.
Telomeres are repeated DNA sequences that sit at the end of chromosomes and protect them during cell replication. Shorter telomeres are associated with aging and an increase in multiple medical and psychiatric disorders, while some healthy behaviors including exercising, eating healthy, meditating, and avoiding smoking can help maintain telomere length. Lithium treatment also increases telomere length.
Recent research by Mateus Levandowski and colleagues found that people who were dependent on crack cocaine had shorter telomeres than elderly women without psychiatric illnesses, particularly if the crack cocaine users had also experienced stress early in life, such as maltreatment or neglect.
Since short telomeres are associated with a variety of medical and psychiatric problems and premature aging, the combined effects of drug use and early life stressors are likely to have an adverse impact on people who have experienced both.
Stress is a risk factor for depression and other mental health disorders. Researchers are currently working to clarify how stress leads to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and why trauma early in life has lasting consequences.
Two recent studies in mice examined whether just witnessing a stressful event leads to depression-like behaviors. In one, adult female mice watched a male mouse as it was repeatedly attacked by a larger mouse. After ten days of this, the female mice were socially withdrawn, had lost interest in drinking sucrose, and gave up more easily during a physical challenge. They also lost weight and showed higher levels of the stress hormone corticosterone in their blood. The researchers, led by Sergio Iniguez, believe their study clarifies how witnessing traumatic events can lead to stress-induced mood disorders.
In the other study, by Carlos Bolanos-Guzman, adolescent male mice witnessed another mouse being attacked. Both the mice that went through the physical stress of being attacked and the mice that went through the emotional stress of watching the attacks occur showed similar depressive behaviors to the mice in the previous study—social withdrawal, loss of interest in sucrose, decreased food intake and exploration of the environment, and decreased motivation in physical challenges. These behaviors persisted into adulthood. Both groups of mice also had increased levels of corticosterone and reduced expression of a particular protein in the ventral tegmental area, a part of the brain linked to stress response. Bolanos-Guzman suggests that both physical and emotional stress have lifelong consequences in mice.
The studies were presented at a scientific meeting in December.
Stress increases the risk of psychiatric illnesses such as major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Not everyone who experiences stress goes on to develop these illnesses, though. Researchers are currently trying to find out why, exploring treatments that might increase resilience and prevent mental illnesses.
Animal research is often used to study depression. Mice exposed to certain stressors behave in ways that resemble human depression—like giving up faster when they’re forced to tread water, or withdrawing from activities they once enjoyed, like eating sucrose. In a recent study by researcher Christine Denny and colleagues, mice were injected with either saline or ketamine, a rapid-acting antidepressant, and one week later they were exposed to triggers that typically produce a depressive response. Mice who received the saline injection still got depressed when, for example, they were repeatedly forced to confront a dominant mouse. But mice who received ketamine injections did better, maintaining their motivation and not showing signs of depressive behavior following the stress. The researchers concluded that ketamine may have a protective effect against stress.
Editor’s Note: These results are remarkable because ketamine’s effects are typically short-lived.
At the 2015 meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researcher Charles Popper reviewed the literature to date about broad-spectrum micro-nutrient treatments for psychiatric disorders in young people, concluding that these formulations of vitamins and minerals can reduce symptoms of aggressive and disordered conduct, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mood disorders, anxiety, and stress. Four randomized controlled trials showed that micronutrient formulas reduced violence and major misconduct in children.
Popper warned that while these micronutrients can be helpful in treating children who have never been prescribed psychiatric medication, they can interact dangerously with psychiatric medications in children who do take them.
At the same meeting, researcher Bonnie Kaplan reported that six randomized controlled trials of broad-spectrum micro-nutrients and B-complex vitamins in adults with and without psychiatric disorders showed that both of the formulas reduced anxiety and stress following natural disasters (which are associated with the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)).
A collaboration between Norwegian and French researchers led by Bruno Etain has clarified the pathway by which childhood trauma is linked to worse outcomes among people with bipolar disorder. The researchers, who presented their work in a poster at the 2015 meeting of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, replicated earlier findings by this editor (Robert Post) that patients who experienced trauma as a child had a more adverse course of bipolar disorder. Etain and colleagues found a link between childhood trauma and an earlier age of onset of bipolar disorder, rapid cycling, suicide attempts, and cannabis misuse.
The researchers identified more than 550 patients with bipolar disorder, who answered questionnaires about their history of bipolar disorder and childhood trauma. Their DNA was also analyzed, and the researchers found that the effect of childhood trauma on age of onset was mediated by the presence of common genetic variants in proteins related to stress (the serotonin transporter) and immune function (Toll-like receptors). They also found that the traits of mood lability (or moodiness) and impulsivity mediated the effects of trauma on clinical outcomes.
The lasting epigenetic effects of child maltreatment and adversity noted in the above abstract are consistent with a large literature showing more epigenetic effects in these individuals than in controls. While genetics are important, the impact of the environment is also substantial.