New research has shown that experiencing chronic stress can actually change the structure of the brain.
The study from a team at the Rockefeller University used animal models to demonstrate that structural changes can occur after periods of prolonged stress. In particular, the amygdala, which is a part of the brain that regulates emotions, is altered. Changes like these are linked to behaviours associated with anxiety and depressive disorders.
However, the research also revealed a potential new drug that could help prevent these structural changes in the brain.
Lead author of the study and postdoctoral associate at the Rockefeller University Carla Nasca said there have been suggestions that this area of the brain reacts to stress. When the team looked at this more closely, they found that neurons in a certain area actually retract as a result of stress.
Published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, the study found that these changes - which can contribute to disorders such as anxiety and depression - can be prevented with "a promising potential antidepressant" that responds quickly.
It is hoped these findings could lead to better treatment for mental health conditions, while also helping to prevent them in people who are at a high risk because they are experiencing long periods of stress.
They found that treatment with the innovative new drug appeared to protect the brain, suggesting that a similar preventative approach might work for people who are at a heightened risk of developing depression.
"Chronic stress is linked to a number of psychiatric conditions, and this research may offer some new insights on their pathology," McEwen said.
Both humans and animals naturally produce acetyl carnitine under normal conditions and there are suggestions that not having enough of it can make a person more prone to mental health problems.
Further studies are being conducted to see whether there is a link between people with depression and this molecule.
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