Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Stress Now, Mental Illness Later

Routinely, I enjoy crapping on the common biological explanations of various mental illnesses (e.g., monoamine hypothesis). However, this does not mean that I do not believe in the importance biology plays in the development of mental illness.

To say that a specific mental illness is the result of a "chemical imbalance" or one "bad gene" is ridiculous. The problem with biological explanations of mental illness is that they neglect the psycho/social aspects of illness development (they are also poorly support by research too!).

Since I'm a psychologist, I pay attention to stress. I believe stress to the be the glue that binds biology and psychology together. This is because stress or more importantly, psychological stress, has a biological mechanism that has both short-term and long-term effects on the body and brain. Certain aspects of the physiology of stress act as "transcription factors," that is, they regulate gene expression. This means the effects of stress can be felt acutely (i.e., in the short-term) or many years later (e.g., the average time span between onset of sexual abuse and the development of clinical depression is 11.5 years, 1).

This poses an interesting question: can the age at which one experience "stress" predict both the onset and type of mental illness? That's what Lupien et al. (2) wanted to answer in an interesting paper that was published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience earlier this year.

Before I delve into their hypothesis, I am required by law to describe the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (see below).

This is how it works. You perceive a stressor (e.g., all the women with whom you were having extra-marital affairs, suddenly decide to tell their "stories" to TMZ), your hypothalamus releases corticotropin release hormone (CRH). CRH stimulates its neighbor, the pituitary gland, to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which finds its way down your blood stream and stimulates the adrenal glands to release glucocorticoids (steroids) as well as catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine).

After this, many wonderful things occur: your wife attacks you with a golf club; your blood sugar spikes, blood pressure and heart rate increase, which delivers a rush of blood and oxygen to your thigh muscles. This enables you to run to your SUV, which you crash 5 feet from your drive way. Now the stressor is gone (i.e., you release a statement on your website indicating that you need to do some "soul searching"); the glucocorticoids bind to certain receptors (i.e., GRs & MRs), and the system shuts down and returns back to its homeostatic baseline.

Lupien et al. reviewed the relevant literature on the effects of stress (e.g., chronic stress, abuse, etc) and neurological development during the following life phases: prenatal, postnatal, adolescence, and adulthood. What they found is summarized below.

"How the effects of chronic or repeated exposure to stress (or a single exposure to severe stress) at different stages in life depend on the brain areas that are developing or declining at the time of the exposure."

(Paraphrased for simplicity) prenatal stress (defined as maternal stress or exogenous steroids during pregnancy) affects the development of many of the brain regions that are involved in regulating the HPA axis (i.e., hippocampus, frontal cortex, and amygdala).

"Postnatal stress has varying effects: exposure to maternal separation during childhood leads to increased secretion of glucocorticoids, whereas exposure to severe abuse is associated with decreased levels of glucocorticoids. Thus, glucocorticoid production during childhood differentiates as a function of the environment."

"From the prenatal period onwards...some areas undergo rapid growth during a particular period. From birth to 2 years of age the hippocampus is developing; it might therefore be the brain area that is most vulnerable to the effects of stress at this time. By contrast, exposure to stress from birth to late childhood might lead to changes in amygdala volume, as this brain region continues to develop until the late 20s. During adolescence...there is an important increase in frontal volume. Consequently, stress exposure during this period should have major effects on the frontal cortex."

"In adulthood and during aging the brain regions that undergo the most rapid decline as a result of aging (amygdala, frontal cortex, hippocampus) are highly vulnerable to the effects of stress hormones. Stress during these periods can lead to the manifestation of incubated effects of early adversity on the brain or to maintenance of chronic effects of stress."

What all that psychobabble means is this: certain brain regions (i.e., amygdala, hippocampus, & frontal cortex) are more vulnerable to stress during certain developmental stages (e.g., the hippocampus is most vulnerable before age two). What the authors are postulating is that these areas, when affected by stress, can be use to predict the nature of the psychopathology that will result from exposure to stress at different ages. Or in their words:

"Exposure to adversity at the time of hippocampal development could lead to hippocampus dependent emotional disorders, which would be different from disorders arising from exposure to adversity a times of frontal cortex development."

This sounds very interesting! Is there any evidence to support it? They list two studies (3, 4). "The first reported that women who experienced trauma before the age of 12 years had increased risk for major depression, whereas women who experienced trauma between 12 and 18 years of age more frequently developed PTSD. The second study reported that repeated episodes of sexual abuse were associated with reduced hippocampal volume if the abuse occurred early in childhood, but with reduced prefrontal cortex volume if the abuse occurred during adolescence."

This does seem to support their hypothesis. However, if you read those two studies, you'll find that it is not as clean cut as these authors suggest. Also, other variables were not discussed such as temperament and genetics, sex and gender, SES, and culture. The research is also murky on what constitutes a "prefrontal" disorder versus a "hippocampal" disorder (not to mention the many anatomical overlaps between psychiatric diagnoses). In spite of those limitations, it is an interesting hypothesis that is worth exploring.

To read an excellent book on this subject, check out Robert Sapolsky's Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

Lupien, S., McEwen, B., Gunnar, M., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10 (6), 434-445 DOI: 10.1038/nrn2639


Bernard Carroll said...

This matter of childhood adversity in relation to adult psychopathology has been dumbed down by those with a particular research agenda. Parousia is correct in what he said at the beginning of his post: The problem with biological explanations of mental illness is that they neglect the psycho/social aspects of illness development.

A more nuanced account was advocated by Paul Mullen and colleagues some years ago (CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE AND MENTAL-HEALTH IN ADULT LIFE
Source: BRITISH JOURNAL OF PSYCHIATRY, 163: 721-732 DEC 1993). Here is their summary: Abstract: The relationship between childhood sexual abuse and mental health in adult life was investigated in a random community sample of women. There was a positive correlation between reporting abuse and greater levels of psychopathology on a range of measures. Substance abuse and suicidal behaviour were also more commonly reported by the abused group. Childhood sexual abuse was more frequent in women from disrupted homes as well as in those who had been exposed to inadequate parenting or physical abuse. While elements in the individual's childhood which increased the risks of sexual abuse were also directly associated to higher rates of adult psychopathology, abuse emerged from logistic regression as a direct contributor to adult psychopathology. Severity of abuse reported was related to the degree of adult psychopathology. The overlap between the possible effects of sexual abuse and the effects of the matrix of disadvantage from which it so often emerges were, however, so considerable as to raise doubts about how often, in practice, it operates as an independent causal element. Further, many of those reporting childhood sexual abuse did not show a measurable long-term impairment of their mental health. Abuse correlated with an increased risk for a range of mental health problems, but in most cases its effects could only be understood in relationship to the context from which it emerged.

Vancouver Therapist said...

Wow what a great post. I have been working on a post on the key types of stress in childhood that can create later illness. Right now we're looking at abuse/neglect, traum, and various types of parent role failure. Nice work here.

mabel said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



Types of stress said...

Everyone in life must be going through stress. It takes a toll in our body. Stress are of different types depends upon person to person and types of tensions, situations like internal stress, acute stress, hypostress. There is also good stress means stress which wont harm you like excitement during occasions, festivals, weddings etc.