If you cast your mind back to basic biology in school, you may remember drawing diagrams of cell structures and contents. Hearing words like Cytoplasm or Nucleus and Golgi apparatus may transport you back to classrooms and labs and potentially evoke feelings of performance anxiety and stress.
New studies looking at stress responses in cells have discovered that Mitochondria play a vital part in “mind-body interactions”. The research is shedding new light on how your biology works with your psychology on a cellular level, having far reaching implications for the way psychiatric and neurological diseases are treated.
Mitochondria are minuscule structures in the cells that are responsible for generating energy.
In the studies done with animals, mitochondria genes were changed slightly and surprisingly, this resulted in observable changes in the way the animals responded to environmental stress. Throughout the study they have been able to show how alterations in mitochondrial function leads to changes in hormonal, metabolic (processing food and energy) and behavioural systems responding to mild stress.
Douglas C. Wallace, Ph.D., director of the Center for Mitochondrial and Epigenomic Medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, heads the study and is considered a pioneer in mitochondrial medicine. He has been looking at the role of Mitochondria and what part their specific genes play in health for over 40 years. He said of the findings:
“Our findings suggest that relatively mild alterations in mitochondrial genes, and hence mitochondrial physiology, have large effects on how mammals respond to stressful changes in their environment,”
In the studies done with mice, mild mutations of the genes inside the Mitochondria produced “unique whole-body stress-responses”. Wallace and his research associates point out that much more research needs to be done to uncover the role of mitochondria on human behavior. But they maintain that the their study highlights the reason behind our limited progress in understanding how biology and psychology work hand in hand.
They believe our lack of “appreciation for the importance of systematic alterations in energetic metabolism” could be hindering the progress in treating mental and neurological disease. “The brain, constituting only 2 percent of human body weight, consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy,” Wallce said. “Hence, mild variations in mitochondrial bioenergetics will have significant effects on the brain.”
“Scientists have long known that stressful experiences, on their own, do not cause disease; it’s our responses to stress that have the potential to culminate in disease. In this emerging paradigm, mitochondria are at the interface of genetic and environmental factors.”
Douglas C. Wallace and associates.
The study raises the possibility of being able to identify alterations to genes in Mitochondria and see the direct link to psychiatric or behavioural issues. This is an exciting development which in turn opens up opportunities for new and more effective therapies to treat these.
What this research suggests is that part of the missing piece in the puzzle to uncover the mysteries of our brain and behaviour, is in our anatomy and physiology, which up until now has been somewhat overlooked.