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Study reveals molecular link in stress-related illness

Kim Carpenter

A new study from Michigan State University reveals an important mechanism in stress related illness. It's well-known that both physical and psychological stress are factors in a range of illnesses, including inflammatory and allergic diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, severe food allergies, and autoimmune disorders like lupus. Mast cells are a type of immune system cell believed to be involved in the development of these illnesses. The study showed that a specific receptor on the surface of the mast cell is activated under stress conditions, leading to the release of chemicals like histamine that can cause stress-related illness.

The receptor is called CRF-1. The researchers compared normal mice to genetically altered mice who lack CRF-1. Then they exposed the mice to allergic stress and psychological stress and measured resulting histamine levels and disease. The mice without CRF-1 who experienced allergic stress had a 54 percent reduction in diseases. Mice experiencing psychological stress had a 63 percent reduction in diseases. 

The findings have implications for drug research and development, says lead study author Adam Moeser, an Assistant Professor of Veterinary Medicine at MSU. "We've identified this little button or circuit in the system that now we can target. This could potentially have an impact on a lot of diseases associated with stress."

Moeser says that many diseases have both a genetic and psychological basis. A genetic predisposition can set someone up for illness, but in many cases that is not sufficient for them to develop disease. "If you are exposed to a stress, which is often referred to as a second hit, now those two combinations often work together to create disease."

Based on these research results, in addition to recommending therapy and lifestyle changes, doctors may be able to prescribe a treatment that dials down the excessive stress response of the mast cells.