Thursday, April 21, 2011

A pill to beat stress? Hope for cure as scientists discover the protein that causes it

It is not clear how such a drug would be better than existing anxiolytic drugs such as Valium -- and removing stress reactions to threat could have its own problems. But it's only a rodent study so far anyway

A pill that keeps stress at bay could be on the horizon after scientists worked out the brain chemistry that turns a healthy dose of fear into overwhelming anxiety or depression. The breakthrough by researchers at Leicester University could lead to pills that quash such stress-related conditions before they arise.

This would be different from anti-depressants, which are prescribed after a person’s health deteriorates. Treatments which might work when existing drugs fail could also be developed.

The research was inspired by the observation that while most of us experience traumatic events from bereavements to broken hearts, only some people descend into depression or other stress-associated psychiatric disorders.

Experiments detailed in the journal Nature flagged up a protein called neuropsin, which is made in the amygdala, the brain’s ‘fear centre’. In times of stress, the brain makes more neuropsin and this triggers a series of chemical reactions that culminate in a ‘fear gene’ being switched on – and feelings of anxiety.

Blocking the protein in mice stopped them displaying anxiety in stressful situations. The researchers are optimistic that the protein also affects how the human brain copes with life’s troubles.

Dr Pawlak said: ‘Studies in mice revealed that upon feeling stressed, they stayed away from zones in a maze where they felt unsafe. ‘These were open and illuminated spaces they avoid when they are anxious. ‘However, when the proteins produced by the amygdala were blocked the mice did not exhibit the same trait. ‘The behavioural consequences of stress were no longer present.

‘We conclude that the activity of neuropsin and its partners may determine vulnerability to stress.’

Although the experiments were in mice, the researchers are optimistic that the protein also affects how the human brain copes with life’s troubles.

Dr Pawlak cautioned that much more research is necessary but added: ‘We are tremendously excited by these findings. ‘We know that all the members of the neuropsin pathway are present in the human brain. ‘They may play a similar role in humans and further research will be necessary to examine the potential of therapies for controlling stress-related behaviours.

‘Our discovery opens up new possibilities for the prevention and treatment of stress-related psychiatric disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.’

Around one in five people experiences some form of anxiety disorder during their life. The researchers said: ‘Stress-related disorders affect a large percentage of the population and generate enormous personal, social and economic impact.

‘It was previously known that some individuals are more susceptible to the detrimental effects of stress than others. ‘Although the majority of us experience traumatic events, only some develop stress-related anxiety disorders such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. ‘The reasons for this were not clear.’


CA: More hatred of McDonald’s

A lawsuit that seeks to stop McDonald's from selling Happy Meals must be dismissed because parents can always prohibit their children from eating them, the hamburger giant said in a court filing.

The lawsuit claims McDonald's unfairly uses toys to lure children into its restaurants. The plaintiff, Monet Parham, a Sacramento, Calif. mother of two, claims the company's advertising violates California consumer protection laws.

The Happy Meal has been a huge hit for McDonald's -- making the company one of the world's largest toy distributors -- and spawning me-too offerings at most other fast-food chains. But lately it also has come under fire from public health officials, parents and lawmakers who are frustrated with rising childhood obesity rates and weak anti-obesity efforts from restaurant operators, which are largely self-regulated.

Parham, who filed suit last December, is represented by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group.
In the lawsuit, Parham admits she frequently tells her children "no" when they ask for Happy Meals, McDonald's said in a court filing late on Monday.

"She was not misled by any advertising, nor did she rely on any information from McDonald's," the company said. Should Parham's lawsuit be allowed, it would spawn a host of other problematic legal proceedings, McDonald's said. "In short, advertising to children any product that a child asks for but the parent does not want to buy would constitute an unfair trade practice," the company said.

Attorneys for Parham did not immediately respond to a request for comment late on Monday.


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