The impact of stress on physical and mental health is becoming better understood. Stress has been linked to inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, type 2 diabetes and even certain allergies. While more is becoming understood about the connection between stress, mental health and disease, scientists want to know more about the role of the biomedical mechanisms involved.
Previous studies in both animals and humans have demonstrated associations between prenatal stress and the development of behavioral problems in offspring that may last into adulthood.
One team at The Ohio State University College of Medicine wants to know more about the connection between stress and mental illness, and has been working to better understand the mechanisms underlying the transmission of maternal stress to the next generation.
The Gur Lab
Under the direction of Tamar Gur, MD, PhD, the Gur Lab brings together interdisciplinary teams of experts in immunology, microbiology, psychiatry, molecular biology and the neurosciences to address the connection between stress and the brain, and the mechanisms at work in the transgenerational transmission of mental illness.
Using molecular, biochemical and behavioral methods, the team is adding to the groundswell of scientific interest in the stress-brain connection, which shows that high levels of stress can impede wound healing and inhibit recovery from surgeries and minor procedures, interfere with the effectiveness of vaccines and weaken the immune status of caregivers, increasing their risk for certain diseases.
In a 2017 study, members of the Gur team were able to connect prenatal stress in pregnant mice with an increased risk to their offspring of developing anxiety-like behavior. A second investigation showed a connection between changes in the placental environment and reduced social behavior in the adult offspring of these mothers. Significantly for future studies, the team was able to link the transgenerational transmission of stress to changes in the microbial composition of the maternal environment as well as the microbiological changes to the development of the child’s immune system.
The “Gut-Brain Axis”
The role of the intrauterine environment in mediating the effect of perinatal stress on the neurodevelopmental disorders of the offspring is still being understood.
In the past decade, scientists have linked stress-induced illness to changes in the microbiome, the environment in which micro-organisms coexist on the skins and in the bodies of all living things, including humans. In animal models, researchers have been able to link stress-induced imbalances in the microbiota of the subjects’ digestive systems with such disorders as weakened immune systems, cognitive deficiencies, anxiety, depression and other diseases connected to the neurological functioning of the brain.
Other studies have linked intestinal microbiota to brain development, establishing a relationship between intestinal microbiota and depression via immune regulation. Experimental manipulation of the gut microbiota has been shown to influence depressive and anxious behaviors in animals and in humans.
Today, scientists in fields as various as gynecology and psychiatry, dermatology and neurology, psychology and microbiology have taken up the challenge of investigating the role of the interaction between the microbiome and the brain—aptly named the “gut-brain axis”—on regulating stress-related responses and the mechanisms at work in the two-way communication at play between the microbiome and the brain.
The Maternal Stress and Microbiome Study
Dr. Gur and her team are eager to apply their combined learning and expertise to further investigate the impact of stress on the microbiome of the intrauterine systems of stressed perinatal mothers, as well as the connection between those stress-induced changes on the well-being and future mental health of their children.
Recent work using probiotics to balance the microbiome shows great promise therapeutically, and the Gur team is gearing up to test some of them in human moms. The longitudinal, observational clinical trial study scheduled to begin this summer will address the mechanisms through which the intrauterine environment contributes to psychiatric illness.
Since 2013, research conducted in the Gur Lab has been generously supported by funding from the March of Dimes Foundation, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation and the Ohio State Center for Clinical and Translational Science. Dr. Gur is a practicing maternal-fetal psychiatrist specializing in pre-conception, pregnancy and postpartum depression in women, and is an assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral science, neuroscience, obstetrics and gynecology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.
Dr. Gur’s honors include a 2017 National Institute of Mental Health K08 Career Award, a 2015 Ohio State College of Medicine Faculty Achievement Award and a 2014-2016 Young Investigator Award from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia & Depression, Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, one of the highest distinctions in the field of mental health. She was named a 2015-2017 Transdisciplinary Scholar by the March of Dimes Ohio Collaborative, and in 2014 received a Career Development Leadership Award from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. She is the recent recipient of a Henry A. and Mrs. Amelia T. Nasrallah Award for Research Excellence in Psychiatry, established to recognize research excellence in a medical student, psychiatric resident and/or faculty member in psychiatry.