In a mice study, Johns Hopkins researchers have found a link between elevated levels of a stress hormone in adolescence — a critical time for brain development — and genetic changes that, in young adulthood, cause severe mental illness in those predisposed to it.
The findings could have wide-reaching implications in both the prevention and treatment of schizophrenia, severe depression and other mental illnesses.
“We have discovered a mechanism for how environmental factors, such as stress hormones, can affect the brain’s physiology and bring about mental illness,” said study leader Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“We’ve shown in mice that stress in adolescence can affect the expression of a gene that codes for a key neurotransmitter related to mental function and psychiatric illness. While many genes are believed to be involved in the development of mental illness, my gut feeling is environmental factors are critically important to the process,” Sawa added.