Don’t worry: Scientists have identified the brain’s stress ‘switch’

European researchers have discovered a protein that ‘switches on’ the stress response in our bodies.

Scientists from the MedUni Vienna in Austria and the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm worked together on a study which identified the role of secretagogin, a calcium-binding protein.

This triggers the release of the hormone CRH, causing a snowball effect in the brain that affects the pituitary gland and leads to a spike in cortisol, one of the body’s main stress hormones. Before you know it, your heart is racing, stomach is churning, and you’re curled up in a corner, keening and rending garments. (You know, your average Monday morning.)

Long-term, stress can weaken the immune system leading to an increased risk of infections. It’s also linked to type two diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease as well as mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

But it’s not all bad news: the researchers didn’t only discover the role secretagogin plays in triggering stress, but found that blocking its production in the brain can stop the body (and mind) going into a full-scale meltdown.

As they detail in their paper in the journal EMBO, the research team hopes that in future suppressing secretagogin could form part of the treatment of mental illnesses and other conditions that are caused or exacerbated by stress.

Image via Helga Weber’s Flickr.

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Diane Shipley

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