Stress Cascade Physically Damaging to DNA

By Peter Zafirides, M.D. on September 08, 2011
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We all know that stress is bad for our health. Many believe that stress alone could be the main reason for the bulk of what ills us in this country. Well, a recent study from Duke University may offer us a glimpse into how stress works to cause damage to and alter our DNA…literally.

According to Robert Lefkowitz, MD, senior author and researcher at Duke University, “We believe this paper is the first to propose a specific mechanism through which a hallmark of chronic stress, elevated adrenaline, could eventually cause DNA damage that is detectable. This could give us a plausible explanation of how chronic stress may lead to a variety of human conditions and disorders, which range from merely cosmetic, like graying hair, to life-threatening disorders like malignancies.”

The paper was published in the August 21 online issue of Nature.

In the study, mice were given an adrenaline-like compound that works through a receptor called the beta adrenergic receptor that Dr. Lefkowitz has studied for many years. The scientists found this model of chronic stress triggered certain biological pathways that ultimately resulted in accumulation of DNA damage.

But how does this stress actually cause DNA damage? It does so by lowering the body’s level of a tumor-suppressor hormone called “P53”.

P53 is a tumor suppressor protein and is considered a “guardian of the genome” – one that prevents genomic abnormalities. “The study showed that chronic stress leads to prolonged lowering of p53 levels,” said Makoto Hara, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Lefkowitz laboratory. “We hypothesize that this is the reason for the chromosomal irregularities we found in these chronically stressed mice.”

But wait! There’s more…

It turns out there may be TWO biological pathways by which stress acts to cause actual DNA damage. Dr. Lefkowitz is continuing studies along another pathway, which is known as the beta-arrestin pathway. Evidence in this current study points to both biological pathways being implicated when stress affects the DNA.

This study highlights the potential mind-body relationship between stress and disease, in this case – DNA damage.

August 21, 2011

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