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Vaccinate Against Stress

Heal
woman stressed

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Beneficial bacteria may become the basis for an immunization.

Stress-related disorders such as anxiety and PTSD affect as many as one in four people over the course of their lifetimes. What if a vaccine could be given that would make people more resistant to the effects of stress? Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder think it’s possible and have published a paper on this in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.  

Previous research suggests that inflammation in the brain can be caused by stress; similar inflammation can also come from trauma such as surgery or illness. This inflammation can interfere with the brain’s neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine and dopamine. “If you induce an inflammatory immune response in people, they quickly show signs of depression and anxiety,” wrote the study’s lead author, Matthew Frank, a senior research associate at the university’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. “Think about how you feel when you get the flu.”

However, a bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, can actually shift the environment toward an anti-inflammatory state, at least in rodent subjects. M. vaccae is a bacterium naturally found in soil. The Mycobacterium blocks the effects of stress, Frank writes, “creating a lasting stress-resilient phenotype in the brain.” In the study, male rats were injected with the bacteria three times over the course of three weeks. Eight days after their final injection, their brains showed higher levels of anti-inflammatory proteins. When the animals were stressed, they also showed lower levels of stress-induced proteins in the brain, and showed less anxious rat behavior.

Probiotics “have been shown to have strong effects in the domains of cognitive function, anxiety and fear,” wrote Lowry. He hopes that someday, this bacterium may be used to craft a vaccine for people who are at high risk of developing PTSD—such as soldiers or first responders. It could also be used in hospitals, administered to prevent cognitive decline after infection. Possibly, he notes, “other strains of beneficial bacteria or probiotics may have a similar effect on the brain.”  

Can you imagine a time when helping treat anxiety would look similar to getting a flu shot? Pretty wild stuff.


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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