Stress in Infancy ‘Dramatically Alters’ Body’s Organs


Source: University of Portsmouth

Summary: Researchers have found the first evidence suggesting emotional stress in infancy has significant and far-reaching effects on the body and could result in disease later in life.


Psychological stress in infancy dramatically changes the amount of an important class of proteins, called GABAA receptors, which in turn may alter the workings of the heart, lungs, kidneys and bladder. It was already known that changes in the amounts of GABAA receptors causes some brain disorders. Researchers at the University of Portsmouth are the first to show that stress can also alter their expression in other organs. The study provides hope that drugs targeting these receptors can now be developed to treat a range of medical conditions, from hypertension to asthma, and from diabetes to inflammatory bowel diseases. The research team studied the way GABAA receptors behave in secondary organs in mice which had first been exposed to stress. The study findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience.

Ligand-gated ion channel

Microscopic image of the GABAA receptor in the mouse intestine. Credit: University of Portsmouth

It has long been known that childhood adversity, such as neglect or abuse, confers a vulnerability to developing a range of medical conditions later in life, including mental illnesses such as anxiety, and cardiovascular or metabolic disorders. The human central nervous system is designed to withstand stress, and a certain amount of stress allows humans to adapt and survive in an ever-changing environment. The problems begin when exposure to stress is constant. The nervous system of an infant is not mature enough to be able to cope with prolonged exposure to the chemicals which mediate our stress response. As a result, such experiences often confer a vulnerability to changes to the normal development of their body and mind.

Researcher Dr. Jerome Swinny said, “GABAA receptors were known to control brain activity and served as important targets for many drugs used in modern medicine to treat brain disorders, such as epilepsy, anxiety as well as inducing surgical anaesthesia.”


More Information: Ethan A. Everington et al, “Molecular Characterization of GABA-A Receptor Subunit Diversity within Major Peripheral Organs and Their Plasticity in Response to Early Life Psychosocial Stress”, Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience(2018). DOI: 10.3389/fnmol.2018.00018 


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