1. Significant financial stress associated with 13-fold higher odds of having a heart attack

    November 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the European Society of Cardiology press release:

    Significant financial stress is associated with a 13-fold higher odds of having a heart attack, according to research presented at the 18th Annual Congress of the South African Heart Association.

    The SA Heart Congress 2017 is being held from 9 to 12 November in Johannesburg.

    “The role of psychosocial factors in causing disease is a neglected area of study in South Africa, perhaps because there are so many other pressing health challenges such as tuberculosis and HIV,” said lead author Dr Denishan Govender, associate lecturer, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

    “The INTERHEART study showed that psychosocial factors are independently associated with acute myocardial infarction (heart attack) in Africa but as far as we are aware there are no other published local data,” said last author Professor Pravin Manga, professor of cardiology, University of the Witwatersrand.

    This study included 106 patients with acute myocardial infarction who presented to a large public hospital in Johannesburg. A control group of 106 patients without cardiac disease was matched for age, sex and race. All participants completed a questionnaire about depression, anxiety, stress, work stress, and financial stress in the previous month. The Likert scale was used to grade the experience of each condition.

    Regarding financial stress, patients were graded with no financial stress if they were coping financially; mild financial stress if they were coping financially but needed added support; moderate financial stress if they had an income but were in financial distress; and significant financial stress if they had no income and at times struggled to meet basic needs.

    Levels of psychosocial conditions were compared between groups and used to calculate associations with having a heart attack.

    Self-reported stress levels were common, with 96% of heart attack patients reporting any level of stress, and 40% reporting severe stress levels. There was a three-fold increased risk of myocardial infarction if a patient had experienced any level of depression (from mild to extremely severe) in the previous month compared to those with no depression.

    Both work stress and financial stress were associated with a higher risk of acute myocardial infarction. The odds of myocardial infarction was 5.6 times higher in patients with moderate or severe work stress compared to those with minimal or no stress. Patients with significant financial stress had a 13-fold higher odds of having a myocardial infarction.

    Dr Govender said: “Our study suggests that psychosocial aspects are important risk factors for acute myocardial infarction. Often patients are counselled about stress after a heart attack but there needs to be more emphasis prior to an event. Few doctors ask about stress, depression or anxiety during a general physical and this should become routine practice, like asking about smoking. Just as we provide advice on how to quit smoking, patients need information on how to fight stress.”

    Professor Manga said: “There is growing recognition that many developing countries are experiencing an increasing prevalence of chronic diseases of lifestyle such as myocardial infarction, and South Africa is no exception. Our study shows that psychosocial aspects are an area of cardiovascular prevention that deserves more attention.”

    Dr David Jankelow, Chairman of the SA Heart 2017 Congress, commented: “We know that the depressed cardiac patient is at greater risk. We as clinicians need to identify them much earlier, so that they can be referred for appropriate intervention. Cardiac rehabilitation together with counselling and reassurance will play an important role as well.”

    Professor Fausto Pinto, ESC immediate past president and course director of the ESC programme in South Africa, said: “Psychosocial factors including stress at work, depression and anxiety contribute to the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and having a worse prognosis. European prevention guidelines say that psychosocial risk factor assessment should be considered in people with, or at high risk of, cardiovascular disease to identify possible barriers to lifestyle change or adherence to medication.”


  2. Researchers develop psychotherapy treatment for refugees’ trauma

    by Ashley

    From the Bielefeld University press release:

    They are suffering from nightmares, flashbacks, depression, or anxiety disorders: refugees coming to Germany from conflict areas are frequently traumatized. ‘Realistic estimates state that up to 40 per cent of refugees have mental problems. Hence, for the period since 2015, we are talking about several hundred thousand people who are in real need of psychological support,’ says Professor Dr. Frank Neuner from Bielefeld University. The psychologist is one of the team responsible for developing ‘Narrative Exposure Therapy’ (NET). It has been applied over the last 15 years in conflict zones from East Africa to Sri Lanka. What is special about this therapy is that it shows success after only a few sessions. In a new ‘research_tv’ programme at Bielefeld University, Frank Neuner talks about NET and explains the consequences of leaving refugees without treatment.

    ‘I believe that a large part of the general population is willing to accept that we now need to invest substantially in dealing with these traumatized refugees and that the state must make money available for this,’ says Frank Neuner. ‘Due to the threats in their home countries, many refugees will be staying with us for a long time. By helping them now, we shall be warding off problems that will otherwise confront us unavoidably in 20 or 30 years time.’

    Neuner designed and tested NET together with Dr. Maggie Schauer and Professor Dr. Thomas Elbert from the University of Konstanz. By working with this method, hundreds of child soldiers, victims of political violence, and war refugees have been able to process their traumatic experiences.

    The key principle of NET is a highly valued practice in every culture: telling stories. ‘Whenever we have gone through an emotional experience, we try to tell stories. This is how we try to make what we have experienced comprehensible to others,’ says Neuner. ‘Refugees have experienced a whole series of traumatic events. We talk together with them about their entire life history and build up a kind of autobiography that enables them to embed the single traumatic experiences in a meaningful context and work out the significance they have in their own personal lives.’ Together with their therapist, traumatized persons work their way repeatedly and chronologically through the negative and positive events in their lives. ‘The idea is to historicize the traumatic events. This permits closure, so that they no longer threaten the present.’

    To deliver therapy to people in crisis zones, Neuner together with colleagues from the University of Konstanz and further supporters founded the aid organisation ‘Vivo’. It is training lay therapists in countries such as Sri Lanka, Ruanda, Uganda, and the Congo. Unlike Germany, the health systems of these countries do not provide access to professional therapists. ‘However, even Germany does not have enough therapists to treat all the refugees with traumatic disorders. Many people in Germany already have to wait months for a treatment slot with a therapist,’ says Neuner. ‘One step towards a solution could be to give NET training to refugees and migrants here in Germany and to employ them within a stepped care model supervised by psychotherapists. However, the German legal situation does not permit this at present.’

    NET is already being practiced by professional therapists in Germany. Bielefeld University’s psychotherapy clinic is applying the method in therapy studies not only refugees with but also with survivors of child abuse, rape victims, and former members of the German military. The scientific further education centres at Bielefeld University and the University of Konstanz are qualifying psychologists, medical doctors, and psychotherapists to work with NET.


  3. Study suggests mindfulness may help mothers cope with stress when their babies have a heart condition

    November 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia press release:

    Mindfulness may offer an active coping mechanism for mothers faced with the stress of having a newborn diagnosed with congenital heart disease (CHD). Mindfulness, which aims to increase a person’s awareness and acceptance of daily experiences, is currently used in a variety of healthcare settings as a potentially effective skill for stress reduction, emotion, affect and attention regulation.

    A team of nurse-researchers from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing (Penn Nursing) published a study in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing in which they gathered perspectives on coping mechanisms from focus groups with 14 mothers of critically ill infants, and explored the feasibility of mindfulness as a stress-reduction technique.

    “Mothers of infants with complex congenital heart disease are exposed to increased stress, which has been associated with numerous adverse outcomes,” said Barbara Medoff-Cooper, PhD, RN FAAN, principal investigator and nurse scientist in the Cardiac Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and at Penn Nursing. “The coping mechanisms these mothers use critically impacts the family’s adaptation to the illness, and most likely infant outcomes as well.”

    “Thus far, parental interventions in the CICU generally are informative or educational, aiming to increase parental abilities to actively manage the caretaking demands of an infant with CHD,” said Nadya Golfenshtein, PhD, RN, lead author of the study and a researcher at Penn Nursing. “Mindfulness can be a helpful tool that assists mothers during an incredibly stressful time for them, and for their family by allowing them to pause and be present in the moment rather than wishing something different was happening or worrying about tomorrow.”

    The researchers collected data during focus groups between July 2015 and March 2016. The sessions included a short introduction to mindfulness as a stress reduction intervention, led by a moderator who is a psychotherapist experienced in group formats.

    “In the study, mothers described the post-diagnostic period, surgery and the cardiac intensive care unit stay as extremely stressful,” said Amy J. Lisanti, PhD, RN, CCNS, CCRN-K, nurse researcher at CHOP and NRSA postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. “Many expressed concerns regarding the post-discharge period when they would need to independently handle their infant’s condition. Their increased stress often led them to feel out of control, lethargic and not like themselves. They acknowledged the importance of stress reduction, recognizing that relief from stress could help them sleep better, recharge energy, focus and think clearly.”

    After experiencing a brief guided session of mindfulness in a focus group, one mother said, “Most meditation is about clear your mind and lose focus, but this is to focus on now. I think it works for me, I was never able to do the clear mind thing. This is more accessible to me.” Another noted, “This is something I’m doing for myself, remembering I’m part of this too. Sometimes you are on autopilot, making sure everyone else is ok. Yes, this is a moment when I’m doing something for myself.”

    The mothers agreed that mindfulness should start early, preferably immediately after the prenatal CHD diagnosis. That way, they felt, that they would have time to learn and practice the skill by the time the baby is born. There was also a general agreement that the worst time to begin the practice is around surgery, as that is an overwhelming time and mothers are too busy to learn a new skill. The mothers preferred engaging in mindfulness in a private, quiet room as the sounds of the CICU stress them and may prevent them from relaxing.

    “We hope to design a program that draws from these findings and more research on mindfulness meditation is needed in a larger cohort of mothers,” added Golfenshtein.


  4. Locus coeruleus activity linked with hyperarousal in PTSD

    November 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Elsevier press release:

    A new study in Biological Psychiatry has linked signs of heightened arousal and reactivity — a core symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — to overactivity of the locus coeruleus (LC), a brain region that mediates arousal and reactivity. By combining bodily responses and brain imaging data, the new paper by Dr. Christoph Mueller-Pfeiffer at the University of Zurich, Switzerland and colleagues is the first to provide direct human evidence for a theory over 30 years old. Pinpointing the origin of symptoms in the brain is a major step in efforts to improve treatment options for patients with the disorder.

    “The authors are to be congratulated on imaging this part of the brain,” said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. “Demonstrating the presence of LC hyperactivity in PTSD sets the stage for clarifying the relationship of LC activity to stress response, resilience, PTSD symptoms, and the treatment of PTSD,” he added.

    In the study, first author Christoph Naegeli, also of University of Zurich, and colleagues analyzed 54 participants who had been exposed to trauma, about half of whom developed PTSD. When the participants listened to random bursts of white noise, those who were diagnosed with PTSD had more frequent eye blinks, and increased heart rate, skin conductance and pupil area responses — indicators of the body’s autonomic response — than participants without PTSD.

    Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity, Naegeli and colleagues found that patients with PTSD had larger brain responses in the LC and other regions wired to the LC that control alertness and motor preparation. According to Mueller-Pfeiffer, the increased brain activity and autonomic responses measured in the participants provide a biologically plausible explanation for hypervigilance and exaggerated startle responses in PTSD. However, LC activation was not directly associated with arousal symptoms. Thus, direct links between LC hyperactivity and PTSD symptom severity still need to be demonstrated.

    The study may also reveal new avenues for treating these common and disabling symptoms of PTSD. “Our results suggest that targeting locus coeruleus system hyperactivity with new pharmacological or psychotherapeutic interventions are approaches worthy of further investigation,” said Dr. Mueller-Pfeiffer.


  5. Study suggests poor social skills may be harmful to health

    November 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Arizona press release:

    Those who struggle in social situations may be at greater risk for mental and physical health problems, according to a new study from the University of Arizona.

    That’s because people with poor social skills tend to experience more stress and loneliness, both of which can negatively impact health, said study author Chris Segrin, head of the UA Department of Communication.

    The study, published in the journal Health Communication, is among the first to link social skills to physical, not just mental, health.

    “We’ve known for a long time that social skills are associated with mental health problems like depression and anxiety,” Segrin said. “But we’ve not known definitively that social skills were also predictive of poorer physical health. Two variables — loneliness and stress — appear to be the glue that bind poor social skills to health. People with poor social skills have high levels of stress and loneliness in their lives.”

    The study is based on a survey of a nationally representative sample of 775 people, age 18 to 91, who were asked to respond online to questions designed to measure social skills, stress, loneliness, and mental and physical health.

    Social skills refer to the communication skills that allow people to interact effectively and appropriately with others. Segrin focused on four specific indicators of social skills: the ability to provide emotional support to others; self-disclosure, or the ability to share personal information with others; negative assertion skills, or the ability to stand up to unreasonable requests from others; and relationship initiation skills, or the ability to introduce yourself to others and get to know them.

    Study participants who had deficits in those skills reported more stress, more loneliness, and poorer overall mental and physical health, Segrin said.

    While the negative effects of stress on the body have been known for a long time, loneliness is a more recently recognized health risk factor.

    “We started realizing about 15 years ago that loneliness is actually a pretty serious risk for health problems. It’s as serious of a risk as smoking, obesity or eating a high-fat diet with lack of exercise,” Segrin said.

    Segrin likens the experience of loneliness to the way people feel when they’re in a hurry to get out the door and can’t find their keys — except the feeling never truly goes away.

    “When we lose our keys, 99 percent of the time we find them, the stress goes away, we get in the car and it’s over,” he said. “Lonely people experience that same sort of frantic search — in this case, not for car keys but for meaningful relationships — and they don’t have the ability to escape from that stress. They’re not finding what they’re looking for, and that stress of frantically searching takes a toll on them.”

    The good news, Segrin says, is that social skills have proved to be amenable to intervention.

    “For people who really want to improve their social skills and work on them, there’s therapy, there’s counseling and there is social skills training,” he said.

    Unfortunately, however, many people who have poor social skills don’t realize it, Segrin said.

    “One of the problems with possessing poor social skills is lack of social awareness, so even if they’re not getting the date, they’re not getting the job, they’re getting in arguments with co-workers or their spouse, they don’t see themselves as a problem,” Segrin said. “They’re walking around with this health risk factor and they’re not even aware of it.”

    Where Do Social Skills Come From?

    Social skills are mostly learned over time, beginning in your family of origin and continuing throughout life. Yet, some scientific evidence suggests that certain traits, such as sociability or social anxiousness, may be at least partly hereditary, said Segrin, who has studied social skills for 31 years.

    While Segrin doesn’t address it in his current study, he says that technology, for all its benefits, may be taking a serious toll on social skills, especially in young people.

    “The use of technology — texting, in particular — is probably one of the biggest impediments for developing social skills in young people today,” he said. “Everything is so condensed and parsed out in sound bites, and that’s not the way that human beings for thousands of years have communicated. It makes young people more timid when they’re face-to-face with others, and they’re not sure what to say what to do. There’s no social interaction, and I fear that’s really hurting young people.”

    Parents can help with their children’s social skills — and, in turn, their health — not only by limiting screen time but also by making sure children are regularly exposed to situations that require in-person social interaction, Segrin said.

    “It could be a summer camp, a sporting program, a church group — something where they can hang out with peers and just talk and do things together,” he said.

    Future research, Segrin said, should explore how other aspects of social skills might impact health. He also is interested in looking at how social skills impact those struggling with chronic illness.

    “I want to get the word out about how valuable good communication skills are,” Segrin said. “They will not just benefit you in your social life but they’ll benefit your physical health.”


  6. Study identifies mechanism that helps us inhibit unwanted thoughts

    November 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Cambridge press release:

    Scientists have identified a key chemical within the ‘memory’ region of the brain that allows us to suppress unwanted thoughts, helping explain why people who suffer from disorders such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and schizophrenia often experience persistent intrusive thoughts when these circuits go awry.

    We are sometimes confronted with reminders of unwanted thoughts — thoughts about unpleasant memories, images or worries. When this happens, the thought may be retrieved, making us think about it again even though we prefer not to. While being reminded in this way may not be a problem when our thoughts are positive, if the topic was unpleasant or traumatic, our thoughts may be very negative, worrying or ruminating about what happened, taking us back to the event.

    “Our ability to control our thoughts is fundamental to our wellbeing,” explains Professor Michael Anderson from the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge. “When this capacity breaks down, it causes some of the most debilitating symptoms of psychiatric diseases: intrusive memories, images, hallucinations, ruminations, and pathological and persistent worries. These are all key symptoms of mental illnesses such as PTSD, schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety.”

    Professor Anderson likens our ability to intervene and stop ourselves retrieving particular memories and thoughts to stopping a physical action. “We wouldn’t be able to survive without controlling our actions,” he says. “We have lots of quick reflexes that are often useful, but we sometimes need to control these actions and stop them from happening. There must be a similar mechanism for helping us stop unwanted thoughts from occurring.”

    A region at the front of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex is known to play a key role in controlling our actions and has more recently been shown to play a similarly important role in stopping our thoughts. The prefrontal cortex acts as a master regulator, controlling other brain regions — the motor cortex for actions and the hippocampus for memories.

    In research published today in the journal Nature Communications, a team of scientists led by Dr Taylor Schmitz and Professor Anderson used a task known as the ‘Think/No-Think’ procedure to identify a significant new brain process that enables the prefrontal cortex to successfully inhibit our thoughts.

    In the task, participants learn to associate a series of words with a paired, but otherwise unconnected, word, for example ordeal/roach and moss/north. In the next stage, participants are asked to recall the associated word if the cue is green or to suppress it if the cue is red; in other words, when shown ‘ordeal’ in red, they are asked to stare at the word but to stop themselves thinking about the associated thought ‘roach’.

    Using a combination of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy, the researchers were able to observe what was happening within key regions of the brain as the participants tried to inhibit their thoughts. Spectroscopy enabled the researchers to measure brain chemistry, and not just brain activity, as is usually done in imaging studies.

    Professor Anderson, Dr Schmitz and colleagues showed that the ability to inhibit unwanted thoughts relies on a neurotransmitter — a chemical within the brain that allows messages to pass between nerve cells — known as GABA. GABA is the main ‘inhibitory’ neurotransmitter in the brain, and its release by one nerve cell can suppress activity in other cells to which it is connected. Anderson and colleagues discovered that GABA concentrations within the hippocampus — a key area of the brain involved in memory — predict people’s ability to block the retrieval process and prevent thoughts and memories from returning.

    “What’s exciting about this is that now we’re getting very specific,” he explains. “Before, we could only say ‘this part of the brain acts on that part’, but now we can say which neurotransmitters are likely important — and as a result, infer the role of inhibitory neurons — in enabling us to stop unwanted thoughts.”

    “Where previous research has focused on the prefrontal cortex — the command centre — we’ve shown that this is an incomplete picture. Inhibiting unwanted thoughts is as much about the cells within the hippocampus — the ‘boots on the ground’ that receive commands from the prefrontal cortex. If an army’s foot-soldiers are poorly equipped, then its commanders’ orders cannot be implemented well.”

    The researchers found that even within his sample of healthy young adults, people with less hippocampal GABA (less effective ‘foot-soldiers’) were less able to suppress hippocampal activity by the prefrontal cortex — and as a result much worse at inhibiting unwanted thoughts.

    The discovery may answer one of the long-standing questions about schizophrenia. Research has shown that people affected by schizophrenia have ‘hyperactive’ hippocampi, which correlates with intrusive symptoms such as hallucinations. Post-mortem studies have revealed that the inhibitory neurons (which use GABA) in the hippocampi of these individuals are compromised, possibly making it harder for the prefrontal cortex to regulate activity in this structure. This suggests that the hippocampus is failing to inhibit errant thoughts and memories, which may be manifest as hallucinations.

    According to Dr Schmitz, “The environmental and genetic influences that give rise to hyperactivity in the hippocampus might underlie a range of disorders with intrusive thoughts as a common symptom.”

    In fact, studies have shown that elevated activity in the hippocampus is seen in a broad range of conditions such as PTSD, anxiety and chronic depression, all of which include a pathological inability to control thoughts — such as excessive worrying or rumination.

    While the study does not examine any immediate treatments, Professor Anderson believes it could offer a new approach to tackling intrusive thoughts in these disorders. “Most of the focus has been on improving functioning of the prefrontal cortex,” he says, “but our study suggests that if you could improve GABA activity within the hippocampus, this may help people to stop unwanted and intrusive thoughts.”

    The research was funded by the Medical Research Council.


  7. Study suggests group exercise improves quality of life, reduces stress far more than individual workouts

    November 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Osteopathic Association press release:

    Researchers found working out in a group lowers stress by 26 percent and significantly improves quality of life, while those who exercise individually put in more effort but experienced no significant changes in their stress level and a limited improvement to quality of life, according to a study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

    “The communal benefits of coming together with friends and colleagues, and doing something difficult, while encouraging one another, pays dividends beyond exercising alone,” said Dayna Yorks, DO, lead researcher on this study. “The findings support the concept of a mental, physical and emotional approach to health that is necessary for student doctors and physicians.”

    Dr. Yorks and her fellow researchers at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine recruited 69 medical students — a group known for high levels of stress and self-reported low quality of life — and allowed them to self-select into a twelve-week exercise program, either within a group setting or as individuals. A control group abstained from exercise other than walking or biking as a means of transportation.

    Every four weeks, participants completed a survey asking them to rate their levels of perceived stress and quality of life in three categories: mental, physical and emotional.

    Those participating in group exercise spent 30 minutes at least once a week in CXWORX, a core strengthening and functional fitness training program. At the end of the twelve weeks, their mean monthly survey scores showed significant improvements in all three quality of life measures: mental (12.6 percent), physical (24.8 percent) and emotional (26 percent). They also reported a 26.2 percent reduction in perceived stress levels.

    By comparison, individual fitness participants were allowed to maintain any exercise regimen they preferred, which could include activities like running and weight lifting, but they had to work out alone or with no more than two partners. On average the solitary exercisers worked out twice as long, and saw no significant changes in any measure, except in mental quality of life (11 percent increase). Similarly, the control group saw no significant changes in quality of life or perceived stress.

    “Medical schools understand their programs are demanding and stressful. Given this data on the positive impact group fitness can have, schools should consider offering group fitness opportunities,” said Dr. Yorks. “Giving students an outlet to help them manage stress and feel better mentally and physically can potentially alleviate some of the burnout and anxiety in the profession.”


  8. Study suggests rapid eye movement sleep may dampen sensitivity to fearful stimuli

    October 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Society for Neuroscience press release:

    Higher quality sleep patterns are associated with reduced activity in brain regions involved in fear learning, according to a study of young adults published in JNeurosci. The results suggest that baseline sleep quality may be a useful predictor of susceptibility to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    Sleep disturbances are a common feature of PTSD. While previous research has focused on understanding how single nights of sleep influence the maintenance of already-established fear memories, few studies have investigated whether an individual’s regular sleeping habits prior to trauma contributes to the acquisition of these fear memories.

    Itamar Lerner, Shira Lupkin and their colleagues at Rutgers University had students monitor their sleep at home for one week using unobtrusive sleep monitoring tools, including a headband that measures brain waves, a bracelet that measures arm movements, and a sleep log. The students then participated in a neuroimaging experiment during which they learned to associate a neutral image with a mild electric shock. Students who spent more time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep — the phase when dreaming occurs — exhibited weaker modulation of activity in, and connectivity between, their amygdala, hippocampus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex during fear learning.

    The authors replicated these results in a second study using traditional polysomnographic monitoring of sleep during the night just prior to fear learning. Taken together, the findings are consistent with the idea that REM sleep reduces levels of norepinephrine in the brain, which may dampen an individual’s sensitivity to fearful stimuli.


  9. Mysterious DNA modification seen in stress response

    October 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Emory Health Sciences press release:

    With advances in genomics, scientists are discovering additional components of the DNA alphabet in animals. Do these unusual chemical modifications of DNA have a special meaning, or are they just signs that cellular machines are making mistakes?

    Geneticists at Emory University School of Medicine led by Peng Jin, PhD have been studying a modification of DNA that is not well understood in animals: methylation of the DNA letter A (adenine). They’ve found that it appears more in the brain under conditions of stress, and may have a role in neuropsychiatric disorders.

    The results are scheduled for publication in Nature Communications.

    Methylation on the DNA letter C (cytosine) generally shuts genes off and is an important part of epigenetic regulation, a way for cells to change how the DNA code is read without altering the DNA letters themselves. Methylation describes a mark consisting of an extra carbon atom and three hydrogens: -CH3.

    What if methylation appears on adenine? In bacteria, N6-methyladenine is part of how they defend themselves against invasion by phages (viruses that infect bacteria). The same modification was recently identified as present in the DNA of insects and mammals, but this epigenetic flourish has been awaiting a full explanation of its function.

    Just to start, having that extra -CH3 jutting out of the DNA could get in the way of proteins that bind DNA and direct gene activity. For C-methylation, scientists know a lot about the enzymes that grab it, add it or erase it. For A-methylation, less is known.

    “We found that 6-methyl A is dynamic, which could suggest a functional role,” Jin says. “That said, the enzymes that recognize, add and erase this type of DNA methylation are still mysterious.”

    It does appear that the enzymes that add methyl groups to A when it is part of RNA are not involved, he adds.

    First author Bing Yao, PhD, assistant professor of human genetics, recently established his own laboratory at Emory to examine these and other emerging parts of the DNA alphabet. Jin is vice chair of research in the Department of Human Genetics.

    In the Nature Communications paper, Yao, Jin and their colleagues looked at the prefrontal cortex region of the brain in mice that were subjected to stress, in standard models for the study of depression (forced swim test and tail suspension test).

    Under these conditions, the abundance of N6-methyladenine in the brain cells’ DNA rose four-fold, the scientists found. The DNA modification was detected with two sensitive techniques: liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry and binding to an antibody against N6-methyladenine. The peak abundance is about 25 parts per million, which isn’t that high — but it appears to be confined to certain regions of the genome.

    The methyl-A modification tended to appear more in regions that were between genes and was mostly excluded from the parts of the genome that encode proteins. The loss of methyl-A correlates with genes that are upregulated with stress, suggesting that something removes it around active genes. There does seem to be some “cross talk” between A and C methylation, Jin adds.

    Genes bearing stress-induced 6mA changes overlapped with those associated with neuropsychiatric disorders; a relationship that needs more investigation. The scientists speculate that aberrant 6mA in response to stress could contribute to neuropsychiatric diseases by ectopically recruiting DNA binding proteins.

    The research was supported in part by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NS051630, NS097206) and the National Institute of Mental Health (MH102690).


  10. Study suggests disaster makes people with depression less healthy

    by Ashley

    From the Rice University press release:

    People who exhibit even a few depressive symptoms before a major life stressor, such as a disaster, may experience an increase in inflammation — a major risk factor for heart disease and other negative health conditions — after the event, according to new research from Rice University.

    The findings have important implications for survivors of crisis situations, according to Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychology at Rice and one of the study’s authors. “An Evaluation of Perceived Health Risk and Depressive Symptoms Before a Disaster in Predicting Post-Disaster Inflammation” will appear in an upcoming edition of Psychosomatic Medicine.

    The study followed 124 people (38 males and 86 females, including whites, Hispanics and African-Americans) who lived in Texas City, Texas, before and after a petrochemical refinery in the city exploded March 23, 2005. The explosion killed 15 workers, injured more than 170 others and shook buildings as far as 10 miles away.

    The researchers found that after the disaster, study participants who beforehand exhibited even minor depressive symptoms (such as a feeling of fatigue or sadness) and identified concern for their physical health had a 75 percent increase in their blood of C-reactive protein, Tumor necrosis factor receptor 1 and Interleukin 6, all of which are immune markers that signal inflammation in the body. Participants who did not display depressive symptoms or identify concern for their physical health beforehand saw no increase in the immune markers after the disaster.

    “We found that people who are slightly depressed and stressed out about their health risks prior to a disaster had a negative response to the actual disaster in the form of these immune markers showing up in their bloodstream,” Fagundes said. “If you’re already above the baseline for mental and physical health, your immune system is primed to have a much more dramatic effect. This could explain other researchers’ findings demonstrating increased cardiovascular events (any event that can damage the heart muscle) following natural disasters.”

    Before the explosion, participants had completed the Concern About Petrochemical Health Risk Scale, a four-item measure of one’s subjective risk of health problems due to living near a petrochemical plant. The four items focused on concerns of health risks stemming from pollution, accidents, stored waste and generally living near oil and chemical industries. Participants indicated their degree of concern for each item on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all concerned) to 5 (extremely concerned).

    Also before the explosion, participants completed a 20-item Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale survey and indicated symptoms of depression they had experienced during the previous two weeks on a scale ranging from 0 (rarely) to 3 (most or all of the time). Collection of follow-up information took place between May and August 2005 (two to six months after the explosion). Participants also gave samples of their blood both before and after the explosion.

    The pre-disaster data used in this study was initially being collected for another study, Fagundes said. The researchers put together the resources to implement a study after the disaster to assess changes, which is similar to what Fagundes is doing now following Hurricane Harvey.

    Fagundes said the study is especially timely following Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

    “It is certainly possible that we will see these same health patterns in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey,” he said.

    Fagundes hopes the study will encourage future work focusing on exposure to disasters and the related negative mental and physical health outcomes.