Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Molecules that Mould the Mind

Credit: PhenomArtlover/iStockphoto

Credit: PhenomArtlover/iStockphoto

By Michael Notaras

Molecular psychiatrists are revealing how stress during critical periods in adolescence can influence mental illness later in life.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

According to the 2013 report on Mental Health by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 45% of Australians will experience a mental disorder within their lifetime, of which 76% will do so before the age of 25. This early age of onset means that manifestations of illness can occur during adolescence, a critical period of development that comprises sexual maturation and ongoing changes in the brain.

Decades of research has led to the conclusion that mental illnesses are associated with discrete changes within the brain, including changes in the functioning of the major neurotransmitter systems. In support of this view, antidepressant drugs act principally within the brain and do so via the targeted modulation of specific neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine.

But how critical is the chemistry of the brain? Can any one molecule truly change behaviour or impart a risk of mental illness?

My research has focused on how the early experience of stress during development can change adult behaviour. This work is important, as a history of stress, childhood adversity or abuse has been consistently associated with an increased risk of mental illness in adulthood. This suggests that the experience of stress during critical periods may induce long-term changes in the brain that could impart susceptibility to mental illness later in life.

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The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.