Duration February 2017 until January 2020
Stress is defined as a non-specific bodily response to any type of demand that exceeds previous coping capabilities. Numerous factors influencing the stress response have been identified so far, thus explaining individual stress vulnerability is a current challenge in stress research. It is already known that women and men react differently to stress: while men report more physiological reactions, women tend to describe subjective stress and negative affect. Although long demonstrated in animal studies, human studies to date leave open how this gender difference is modulated by external and internal factors.
A promising approach to investigate these differences is therefore the analysis of genetic and epigenetic parameters. Regarding stress, a polymorphism of the serotonin transporter (5-HTTLPR) has been associated with stress vulnerability. However, subsequent replication attempts have failed, possibly because this effect is moderated by complex interactions of sex, sex hormone concentration, and other genotypes. In addition, there is evidence that past traumatic experiences may lead to permanent structural and regulatory modulations and thus may also cause alterations in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis function. The underlying biological mechanism is still unclear, but previous findings increasingly point to the role of epigenetic mechanisms that regulate gene expression and thus subsequently influence complex neuronal functions. One of these mechanisms is DNA methylation.
Therefore, the proposed project will investigate the subjective, psychophysiological and neural stress response of 165 women and 165 men genotyped for 5-HTTLPR using a psychosocial stress paradigm. The measurements will be performed at two sites (Aachen, Tübingen). The methylation level of the serotonin transporter gene (SCL6A4) will additionally be assessed in all subjects. Since the testosterone level may have a modulating influence on the stress reaction depending on the genotype, this effect will be examined in women and men. Neuropsychological and psychophysiological data will also be collected, which will be related to the results on stress response and cognitive abilities.
The question of the specificity of the stress response, taking into account gender, genotype and epigenetic parameters, may contribute essentially to our understanding of individual stress vulnerability and stress regulation processes. Since many psychiatric disorders are associated with stress, this also has important clinical implications. (Prof. Dr. Vanessa Nieratschker & Prof. Dr. Ute Habel, RWTH Aachen)