A pill to beat stress? Hope for cure as scientists discover the protein that causes it
Last updated at 7:59 AM on 21st April 2011
A pill that keeps stress at bay could be on the horizon after scientists worked out the brain chemistry that turns a healthy dose of fear into overwhelming anxiety or depression.
The breakthrough by researchers at Leicester University could lead to pills that quash such stress-related conditions before they arise.
This would be different from anti-depressants, which are prescribed after a person’s health deteriorates.
Treatments which might work when existing drugs fail could also be developed.
The research was inspired by the observation that while most of us experience traumatic events from bereavements to broken hearts, only some people descend into depression or other stress-associated psychiatric disorders.
Experiments detailed in the journal Nature flagged up a protein called neuropsin, which is made in the amygdala, the brain’s ‘fear centre’.
In times of stress, the brain makes more neuropsin and this triggers a series of chemical reactions that culminate in a ‘fear gene’ being switched on – and feelings of anxiety.
Blocking the protein in mice stopped them displaying anxiety in stressful situations. The researchers are optimistic that the protein also affects how the human brain copes with life’s troubles.
Dr Pawlak said: ‘Studies in mice revealed that upon feeling stressed, they stayed away from zones in a maze where they felt unsafe.
‘These were open and illuminated spaces they avoid when they are anxious.
‘However, when the proteins produced by the amygdala were blocked the mice did not exhibit the same trait.
‘The behavioural consequences of stress were no longer present.
‘We conclude that the activity of neuropsin and its partners may determine vulnerability to stress.’
Although the experiments were in mice, the researchers are optimistic that the protein also affects how the human brain copes with life’s troubles.
Dr Pawlak cautioned that much more research is necessary but added: ‘We are tremendously excited by these findings.
‘We know that all the members of the neuropsin pathway are present in the human brain.
‘They may play a similar role in humans and further research will be necessary to examine the potential of therapies for controlling stress-related behaviours.
‘Our discovery opens up new possibilities for the prevention and treatment of stress-related psychiatric disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.’
Around one in five people experiences some form of anxiety disorder during their life.
The researchers said: ‘Stress-related disorders affect a large percentage of the population and generate enormous personal, social and economic impact.
‘It was previously known that some individuals are more susceptible to the detrimental effects of stress than others.
‘Although the majority of us experience traumatic events, only some develop stress-related anxiety disorders such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.
‘The reasons for this were not clear.