Brain marker finding could optimize treatment for stress-related illnesses

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Researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine and the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders have discovered a potential indicator of how stress affects the brain and alters its ability to problem solve, according to new findings published in the journal NeuroImage. The findings could ultimately understand and optimize treatment for patients suffering from stress-related illnesses.

The results come from two companion studies involving 45 healthy college-age individuals who were genetically tested for the presence of at least one copy of a variation in the serotonin transporter gene (SERT), which is associated with greater susceptibility to stress.

Participants were given a series of tests while being monitored by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The first test involved verbal processing tasks where participants were asked in two sessions—stress and no-stress control—how many items from a category they could name in a minute. Researchers found that stress did not impact overall performance for either gender or gene group, but effects of stress on performance did relate to changes in the brain's overall functional connectivity in all participants, suggesting the brain could provide a biomarker for the effects of stress on cognition.

In the other study, the same participants completed problem solving tasks in two sessions during MRI testing. Researchers discovered changes to the connections involving a section of the brain called the middle temporal gyrus related to changes in performance during stress in participants. This relationship depended on the presence or absence of the stress-related variant of the SERT gene, indicating a potential specific brain marker associated with susceptibility to stress during problem solving.

The researchers said the results are promising but require further examination.

"This may begin to help us understand what is going on in the brain when stress is affecting cognition," said David Beversdorf, MD, supervising investigator and professor of radiology, neurology, and psychology in a statement. "If we can develop an intervention that affects the brain's networks, we may be able to mitigate the cognitively impairing effects of stress."