The scientists first located a receptor called corticotropin-releasing factor receptor subtype 1 (CRF1) and discovered that it was expressed on the mast cell. Looking at CRF1, they then designed the experiment to test if this receptor was responsible for the mast cell response to stress.
“This receptor is playing a role in many diseases that have to do with the mast cell,” said Moeser. When someone is prone to allergic responses, he said, stress can exacerbate and even trigger an allergic flare.
For the experiment — which was repeated multiple times — researchers took between eight and 12 mice and divided them into two groups. The mice were genetically bred to be void of mast cells, which allowed the researchers to inject one group of mice with mast cells while the other went without. The scientists then stressed the two groups of mice: For psychological tests, they placed them in plastic tubes for a short period of time. For immune tests, they exposed them to an allergen the mice were previously sensitized to.
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The researchers then took a variety of measurements to calculate each mouse’s stress level, including their histamine levels, temperature, and whether they had a leaky gut, a common sign of stress in animals. They also looked at the behavior of each mouse, with face scratching, reduced motion, and puffy features each receiving a clinical score — the higher the score, the higher level of disease.
Mice that had CRF1 had 12-times more histamine in immune testing when compared to non-CRF1 mice. Mice without CRF1 had 54 percent less disease than those with CRF1 in immune testing and 63 percent less disease in psychological tests.
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
While the researchers were expecting CRF1-deficient mice to have a reduction of disease when compared to mice with CRF1, they were surprised by the results.
“What was surprising was the magnitude of the difference,” said Moeser. “We were not expecting such a profound impact of the disease. It tells us that this is a really important target that is mediating the majority of the responses.”
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Moving forward, the researchers will continue working with human and animal cells to study the interaction between stress and mast cells. Results could help scientists develop drugs to interact with CRF1 and perhaps downplay the physical effects of stress.
Until then, the American Psychological Association has a list of recommendations to help cope with chronic stress. The group recommends scaling back on your list of projects and commitments, reaching out to family and friends for support, evaluating your sleep patterns and setting realistic expectations. Connecting with a psychologist that is trained to help manage stress can also help, the group says.
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