Each year, around 57.7 million Americans develop a mental health disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or schizophrenia. Mental health disorders can be detrimental to a person’s life, disrupting relationships, schoolwork, professional life, and overall quality of life. In fact, depression, the most common mental health disorder in the U.S., is the leading cause of disability for people aged 15 to 44.
Because of the significant impact of mental health disorders, medical professionals continue to look for possible contributing factors of these disorders to better understand these conditions. Mental health disorders are complex conditions that typically involve a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and social factors contributing to their development. Although each disorder is unique, there are some common factors that can lead to the development of several of these disorders.
By knowing the neurobiological causes, as well as the reasons that some people develop them and others do not, the medical community will be able to better treat — and prevent– such illnesses. Additionally, research into genetic biomarkers of these conditions can help medical professionals find alternate ways to screen for the disorders beyond just the subjective feelings, emotions or behavior patterns of a patient. Therefore, any new finding about a possible genetic, biological, or environmental factor involved in these conditions provides valuable insight into this field.
Studies have shown that children born to mothers who are exposed during pregnancy to a variety of environmental stressors, known as cellular insults, including trauma, illness, or substance abuse, are more susceptible to mental illness later in life. However, the underlying causes for the connection between prenatal stress and mental health are largely unknown. A recent study by researchers from Yale University found that a single gene might be the connection.
The researchers looked at mice that were exposed as fetuses to alcohol, methyl-mercury, and maternal seizures. When exposed to these stresses, the gene HSF1 (heat shock factor) was activated in cerebral cortical cells of the mice. The researchers found that by activating the expression of this gene, the brain cells were protected, enabling them to survive prenatal insult. However, those with a dysfunction in this gene had structural brain abnormalities and were prone to seizures after birth, even when the exposure to toxins was very low.
There are more than 100,000 different proteins in the human body, which are created by folded chains of varying length made up of about 20 amino acids in different sequences. Cellular stress can cause proteins to misfold, which can cause disease and dysfunction, because organs and body systems rely on the correct transcription of proteins to function properly.
Heat-Shock Transcription Factor Genes
The HSF1 gene is one of several heat-shock transcription factor genes, which play an important role in the human stress response and immune system. The HSF genes regulate the expression of the heat shock proteins that are activated by temperature or other forms of cellular stress. The heat shock proteins have a role as “molecular chaperones,” helping the proteins to fold correctly, in essence fixing the problems caused by cellular stress. Heat shock proteins also monitor cells to ensure the proteins continue to transcribe correctly, and some experts believe they also help the immune system recognize diseased cells.
HSF1 and heat shock proteins play a role in protecting the body from numerous diseases, including cancer. The activation of their expression protects the body’s cells from being damaged and causing problems, which could be why the activation or dysfunction of HSF1 in the developing brain of an embryo during prenatal stress could play a role in the development of a neuropsychiatric problem later in life. Any cells in the brain, such as the cerebral cortical cells analyzed in this study, made vulnerable by stressors could become disturb the development of the brain, leading a person more vulnerable to developing a mental health disorder later in life.
The researchers also found that different types of environmental stressors have the ability to trigger the same condition if they occur during the same period of prenatal development. However, the same stressor might cause different problems if it occurs at different times during the pregnancy.
In an additional experiment, the researchers looked at stem cells from biopsies of individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia. They found that the genes from these stem cells had a more significant response when exposed to the environmental insults than stem cells from people without schizophrenia. This supports the thesis that stress causes vulnerable cells to malfunction.
Therefore, the findings from the study suggest that different types of prenatal stressors might activate a singular molecular trigger that could make individuals more susceptible to later neuropsychiatric disorders.
HSF1 activation could be a permanent marker for a stressed or damaged cell. This means that it could be a way to identify these cells in adults in order to explore the pathogenesis of postnatal disorders. Once scientists have a greater understanding of this connection, they will be able to find ways to protect vulnerable cells, and thereby hopefully discover methods to prevent some of these disorders from developing in vulnerable populations.
Mental Health Treatment at Sovereign Health Group
Sovereign Health Group offers state-of-the-art, evidence-based treatment for a variety of mental health conditions, including PTSD, depression, anxiety disorders, OCD, and bipolar disorder. We use a biopyschosocial approach that treats the individual, not the disorder. You can learn more about our program here. We also offer treatment services for addiction and dual diagnosis. Call our Admissions team today at 866-264-9778.
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