May 24, 2024

Study Reveals Link Between Adolescent Stress and Adult Mental Illness Predisposition

Experiencing excessive stress during adolescence may lead to lasting changes in gene expression in the brain, particularly those related to bioenergy functions. These alterations can impact cell respiration and result in behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders in adulthood, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of São Paulo’s Ribeirão Preto Medical School (FMRP-USP) in Brazil.

The study, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, sheds light on the impact of stress during adolescence on long-term mental health.

Adolescence is a period of significant physical and behavioral changes, driven by both neurobiological and social factors. The brain, similar to that of humans, demonstrates high plasticity during this stage, at both molecular and behavioral levels. Changes in gene expression across different brain regions can lead to modifications in brain cell connectivity, which can persist into adulthood and are associated with psychiatric disorders.

Thamyris Santos-Silva, first author of the published paper and a former Ph.D. candidate in pharmacology at FMRP-USP, explained that the brain’s plasticity during adolescence is greatly influenced by social experiences. Susceptibility to adverse social and environmental factors, such as trauma and abuse, is increased during this time, and social experiences can determine vulnerability to stress and resilience.

The prefrontal cortex, a brain region critical for cognitive control of emotions in adulthood, is particularly vulnerable to stress during adolescence. In rats exposed to stress during this developmental period, the researchers observed lower expression levels of genes involved in mitochondrial respiration within the prefrontal cortex.

Mitochondria are organelles found in most cells, including neurons in the brain. Responsible for cell respiration, they provide the necessary energy for neuronal functioning and play a role in regulating social behavior and stress responses.

The study involved subjecting late-adolescent rats to a ten-day stress protocol that coincided with a period of intense brain plasticity. Afterward, the rats were evaluated using various behavioral tests to assess their anxiety levels, social interaction, and cognitive function. The results consistently showed significant impairments across all areas.

Felipe Villela Gomes, the last author of the study and a professor at FMRP-USP’s Department of Pharmacology, explained, “Stressed animals in this life stage displayed a markedly poor behavioral profile, with anxiety, reduced sociability, and impaired cognitive function.”

To investigate whether these behavioral variations corresponded with gene expression changes, the researchers sent RNA samples to the Behavioral Genetics Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Led by Professor Carmen Sandi, the laboratory specializes in studying the genetic basis of behavior.

The findings of this study highlight the long-lasting effects of stress during adolescence on mental health. Understanding the underlying mechanisms can help identify potential targets for interventions aimed at preventing or mitigating the development of psychiatric disorders in adulthood.

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