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Long Commute? Don't Stress: UCLA Study Could Lead to a Chill Pill

A new UCLA study examines how stress manages to harm the immune system. The study could pave the way for a drug to ease the effects of stress for soldiers, caregivers, or even commuters.


By Elaine Schmidt

Published Jul 15, 2008 3:17 PM

Most people know that stress can be unhealthy, but UCLA professor Rita Effros, author of a new study on stress, thinks she knows why.

Effros, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, studied how stress works on the immune system. The answer appears to rely on the stress hormone cortisol, and cortisol's ability to interfere with the enzyme telomerase, an enzyme that cells need to stay young.

A magic pill?

"We are testing therapeutic ways of enhancing telomerase levels to help the immune system ward off cortisol's effect. If we're successful, one day a pill may exist to strengthen the immune system's ability to weather chronic emotional stress."

The findings suggest a potential drug could prevent damage to the immune systems of individuals suffering from long-term stress — such as caregivers to chronically ill family members, soldiers, air traffic controllers, astronauts and people who drive long daily commutes.

What the study found

Every cell contains a tiny clock called a telomere, which shortens each time the cell divides. Short telomeres are linked to a range of human diseases, including HIV, osteoporosis, heart disease and aging. Previous studies have shown that an enzyme within the cell, called telomerase, keeps immune cells young by preserving their telomere length and ability to continue dividing. UCLA scientists found that the stress hormone cortisol suppresses immune cells' ability to activate their telomerase. This may explain why the cells of persons under chronic stress have shorter telomeres.

"When the body is under stress, it boosts production of cortisol to support a 'fight or flight' response," said Effros, who is also a member of UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center, the UCLA Molecular Biology Institute and the UCLA AIDS Institute. "If the hormone remains elevated in the bloodstream for long periods of time, though, it wears down the immune system."

The research was published in the May 2008 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, and supported by the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Geron Corp. and TA Therapeutics Ltd.