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Stress code in the spotlight

Researchers supported by Marie Curie Actions at the University of Leicester have identified a specific protein generated by the brain in response to stress. Their findings could help boost our understanding of stress-related psychiatric diseases in people.

Researchers at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom have identified a specific protein generated by the brain in response to stress. Their findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), could help boost our understanding of stress-related psychiatric diseases in people, particularly in knowing how the human brain deals with stress and how it eases its impact. The study was funded in part by a Marie Curie Excellence Grant under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

Scientists from Leicester's Department of Cell Physiology and Pharmacology investigated 'thin' and 'mushroom-like' parts of nerve cells in the brain that play a critical role in our learning and remembering processes. According to the researchers, people can tweak what they remember, thus mitigating the stress of painful memories. Discovering the production of this specific protein in the brain that could help protect people from 'too much anxiety' and give organisms the help they need to deal with negative life events is a groundbreaking result of the study.

'Every day stress 'reshapes' the brain - nerve cells change their morphology, the number of connections with other cells and the way they communicate with other neurons,' explains Dr Robert Pawlak, a Neuroscience lecturer at the University of Leicester and one of the authors of the study. 'In most cases these responses are adaptive and beneficial - they help the brain to cope with stress and shape adequate behavioural reaction.'

More than a third of the human population is affected by stress-related psychological and mental disturbances, according to the researchers. Their next plan of action is to determine whether the mechanisms they identified can be used to inform clinical strategies to manage anxiety disorders and depression.

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