New research has found that stress-induced hormones produced by the brain can increase an individual’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and accelerate the development of Alzheimer’s in individuals already suffering from the disease.
While previous reports have linked elevated levels of stress with an increased risk in an individual developing dementia, this study is the first to discover the precise mechanism that causes stress-induced Alzheimer’s disease.
When the brain is stressed, it produces steroids that can inhibit general brain activity. One of such steroids, allopregnanolon, was the subject of a study led by Swedish researcher Sara K. Bengtsson.
In order to test how and why stress can lead to dementia later in life, the research team conducted a laboratory experiment on mice genetically predisposed to developing Alzheimer’s disease. The mice were treated chronically with elevated allopregnanolone levels, comparable to those caused by mild stress. After a period of no steroid treatment, the mice were tested for learning and memory.
The mice with elevated levels of the stress steroid experienced impaired memory and learning in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s development, when they normally would not display these symptoms. The brains of the mice also displayed higher levels of beta-amyloids, proteins that form plaques between nerve cells in the brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers noted that a similar acceleration of Alzheimer's disease in humans due to chronic stress could mean the difference between living independently and requiring professional care.
Bengtsson concluded that allopregnanolone is an important link in the mechanism behind stress-induced Alzheimer’s disease, but that further studies would be required to uncover the full extent of its influence.
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