How stress can clog your arteries

Sarah C.P. Williams in Scientific American:

BloodStudying the effect of stressful intensive care unit (ICU) shifts on medical residents, biologist Matthias Nahrendorf of Harvard Medical School in Boston recently found that blood samples taken when the doctors were most stressed out had the highest levels of neutrophils and monocytes. To probe whether these white blood cells, or leukocytes, are the missing link between stress and atherosclerosis, he and his colleagues turned to experiments on mice. Nahrendorf’s team exposed mice for up to 6 weeks to stressful situations, including tilting their cages, rapidly alternating light with darkness, or regularly switching the mice between isolation and crowded quarters. Compared with control mice, the stressed mice—like stressed doctors—had increased levels of neutrophils and monocytes in their blood. The researchers then homed in on an explanation for the higher levels of immune cells. They already knew that chronic stress increases blood concentrations of the hormone noradrenaline; noradrenaline, Nahrendorf discovered, binds to a cell surface receptor protein called β3 on stem cells in the bone marrow. In turn, the chemical environment of the bone marrow changes and there’s an increase in the activity of the white blood cells produced by the stem cells. “It makes sense that stress wakes up these immune cells because an enlarged production of leukocytes prepares you for danger, such as in a fight, where you might be injured,” Nahrendorf says. “But chronic stress is a different story—there’s no wound to heal and no infection.”

In mice living with chronic stress, Nahrendorf’s team reported today in Nature Medicine, atherosclerotic plaques more closely resemble plaques known to be most at risk of rupturing and causing a heart attack or stroke. When the scientists blocked the β3 receptor, though, stressed mice not only had fewer of these dangerous plaques, but also had reduced levels of the active immune cells in their plaques, pinpointing β3 as a key link between stress and atheroscelerosis. The finding could lead to new drugs to help prevent cardiovascular disease, suggests biologist Lynn Hedrick of the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology in San Diego, California. “I think this gives us a really direct hint that the β3 receptor is important in regulating the stress-induced response by the bone marrow,” Hedrick says. “If we can develop a drug that targets the receptor, this may be very clinically relevant.”

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