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Epigenetic Changes: Anxiety affects the immune system
There are many people who suffer from anxiety disorders. These not only represent a heavy burden for those affected in everyday life, but can also have consequences for the body. For example, fear affects our immune system.
According to experts, almost ten percent of people worldwide suffer from depression and anxiety. Anxiety disorders are among the most common psychiatric disorders in Germany. They usually manifest themselves in excessive worry, fear, and a tendency to avoid potentially stressful situations, including social contacts. Anxiety can also affect the immune system.
Epigenetic changes through fear
Anxiety arises when triggering stimuli are followed by an excessive stress response. This is an important protective mechanism for the body when the response is appropriate.
If it happens uncontrollably and those affected are exposed to such extreme stress reactions for longer, this probably leads to epigenetic changes that have an unfavorable effect on the body.
Researchers at the Helmholtz Zentrum München and the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry got to the bottom of this by comparing data from broad population groups with that of patients.
This enabled them to replicate their results in the clinical setting. In addition, they checked their findings in the animal model, it says in a message.
The results were recently published in the journal "Neuropsychopharmacology".
Increase in DNA methylation
The KORA F4 study provided the first clue to 1,522 adults aged 32 to 72 who came from Augsburg and the two neighboring counties.
The researchers took randomly selected blood samples, with and without anxiety disorder, to learn more about DNA methylation. DNA methylation is part of epigenetics, an important mediator between genes and the environment.
In individuals suffering from anxiety symptoms, the scientists found an almost 50 percent increase in DNA methylation of the ASB1 gene.
The ASB1 gene can trigger the formation of cells in various tissues, including blood and brain. This means that this gene plays an important role not only in the nervous system, but also in the immune system.
Dr. Rebecca Emeny carried out this study with colleagues in the Mental Health working group under the direction of Prof. Karl-Heinz Ladwig, Institute for Epidemiology II (EPI II) at Helmholtz Zentrum München (HMGU).
Further development of diagnosis, therapy and prevention
The second and third part of the project was led by Prof. Elisabeth Binder, director of the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry (MPI). The population-based results suggested epigenetic effects to regulate the stress-sensitive ASB1 gene in severe anxiety.
Evidence was provided by a study of patients with anxiety disorders at the MPI psychiatry (131 affected people who were without medication and 169 subjects): The changed regulation of stress and anxiety by the ASB1 gene was also evident in the clinical setting.
Elisabeth Binder and her team translated these results back into an animal model of fear. She was also able to demonstrate the importance of the ASB1 gene for the regulation of stress and anxiety in mice.
The fact that stress and fear are associated with epigenetic changes that affect not only the brain but also the immune system could be an important starting point for the further development of diagnosis, therapy and prevention of this common mental illness. (ad)