Brain chemistry linked to source of stress disorders

A team of neuroscientists at the University of Leicester, including the Medical Research Council Toxicology Unit at the university, have announced a breakthrough in the understanding of how our brain responds to highly stressful and traumatic events. The findings, which were made in collaboration with researchers from Poland and Japan, have been published in the journal Nature.

The University of Leicester’s Dr Robert Pawlak, who led the UK team, said:

“We used genetic, molecular, electrophysiological and behavioural approaches to investigate the molecular basis of anxiety and how stress-related environmental signals are translated into proper behavioural responses. This resulted in the discovery of a critical, previously unknown pathway mediating anxiety in response to stress.”

The study revealed that the emotional centre of the brain – the amygdala – reacts to stress by increasing production of a specific protein called neuropsin. This triggers a series of chemical reactions which cause the amygdala to increase its activity. As a consequence, a gene is turned on that determines the stress response at a cellular level.

Dr Pawlak continued:

“We examined the behavioural consequences of the series of cellular events caused by stress in the amygdala. Studies in mice revealed that when the proteins produced by the amygdala were blocked – either pharmacologically or by gene therapy – the mice did not exhibit the behavioural consequences of stress. We conclude that the activity of neuropsin and its partners may determine vulnerability to stress. Furthermore, we know that all members of the neuropsin pathway are present in the human brain.”

Professor Chris Kennard, Chairman of the Medical Research Council’s Neuroscience and Mental Health Board which funded the research, said:

“These are very exciting findings which open up new possibilities for the prevention and treatment of stress-related psychiatric disorders. This research is an example of the important work undertaken as part of the Medical Research Council’s strategy in mental health to identify new treatment targets. This is a key area, as these disorders have significant effects on the lives of sufferers, their families and also the wider population.”

The research was also funded by the European Union and Medisearch – the Leicestershire Medical Research Foundation.

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The paper ‘Neuropsin cleaves EphB2 in the amygdala to control anxiety’ by Attwood, Bourgognon, Patel, Mucha, Schiavon, Skrzypiec, Young, Shiosaka, Korostynski, Piechota, Przewlocki and Pawlak is published today in Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature09938

For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including one of the first antibiotics penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century.

About the University of Leicester: A member of the 1994 Group of universities that shares a commitment to research excellence, high quality teaching and an outstanding student experience.

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About the EU Marie Curie award: A total of 50,000 researchers have been supported by the ‘Marie Curie Actions’ since 1996.

Support is available for researchers moving within Europe as well as to other parts of the world. Individual fellowships are also open to top researchers from outside the EU who want to carry out research in Europe.

Applications are evaluated by an independent panel of renowned European and international scientists. The evaluation is based on the scientific quality of the project and its likely impact on European competitiveness, as well as on the excellence of the host institute and the researcher.

Due to the high number of applicants, only the best projects are funded.

The EU will allocate more than €4.5 billion under the Marie Curie scheme between 2007 and 2013.

Medisearch – The Leicestershire Medical Research Foundation: Medisearch was set up in the 1970’s as a charitable trust to support research within the Leicestershire Teaching Hospitals and The University of Leicester Medical School.  The Trust maintains independence from the NHS and University, but is administered on a day to day basis by staff within the University of Leicester College of Medicine, Biological sciences and Psychology, on behalf of the Trustees.

By supporting and funding medical research and equipment across Leicestershire, Rutland and Northamptonshire, Medisearch aims to develop new treatments and promote a wider understanding of some of the most severe conditions. Through this research, the charity is bringing hope to future generations.