For teens, excessive stress may be more harmful than causing headaches and acne breakouts. Scientists from the Johns Hopkins University have delivered a study that reveals that adolescents who experience elevated levels of stress in their youth are at greater risk for developing serious mental illnesses as an adult. Their study indicates that high levels of cortisol can cause genetic variations in a person who has a predisposition to mental illness. Researchers are encouraged that their findings can help in the prevention of mental illness as well as in development of new treatment methods.
Stress Effects in Mice
Lead researcher, Dr. Akira Sawa, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, believes that mental illness is influenced by both genes and environmental factors, like stress hormones. His belief led to an investigation using adolescent mice to assess the impact of stressors on mental illness.
When healthy mice were separated, their behavior remained normal. However, when mice with a predisposition to traits of mental illness were separated from the other mice, they became hyperactive and depressed. When they were allowed to reunite with the healthy mice, the isolated mice still exhibited symptoms of depression and mental illness. As adult mice, the once-stressed mice suffered from mental illness.
When a gene mutates it is permanent. Some genes, however, change transiently. Something in the brain causes a gene to affect the function of DNA. This epigenetic change is what scientists witnessed in the mice. Sawa’s team noticed that stressors were limiting the ability of the gene tyrosine hydroxylase (Th) to regulate the calming neurotransmitter, dopamine.
Sawa and his team found that the mice with mental illness symptoms all had elevated stress levels. The researchers tested whether the stress hormone cortisol was influencing dopamine levels in the brain, and found that reducing the cortisol returned dopamine levels to normal.
Reducing Stress, Reducing Mental Illness
This research implies that there is time and means to prevent some mental illnesses and offers hope for finding treatment for those already diagnosed. Sawa hopes that his team’s research will encourage more preventive care for adolescents who have a history of mental illness in their families.
With genetics already against them, these adolescents are already at risk for developing the mental illness that has passed through their generations. Any stress that they experience will only make their risk of developing mental illness more likely.
Sawa envisions preventive care that helps prevent child neglect, physical or emotional abuse, abandonment, or other stressors. Programs that educate and assist parents in the responsible and nurturing growth of their children will help prevent adolescent stress, and early treatment of stress or anxiety from a mental health specialist can help heal a child for the time being and for the future.