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Reducing stress, one cell at a time


Date: April 8, 2021

The key to overcoming chronic stress and its many negative physiological consequences may lie in tweaking the activity of a novel subgroup of adrenal cells—located in the adrenal gland, above our kidneys, which are responsible for producing a range of hormones. This discovery was made by a Weizmann-Max Planck research team, which thoroughly mapped the brain’s stress response axis at an unprecedented level of resolution.

Using advanced single-cell RNA sequencing, postdoctoral fellow Dr. Juan Pablo Lopez in the joint neurobiology lab of Weizmann Institute President Prof. Alon Chen of the Department of Neurobiology, and the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, developed the first-ever catalogue of all major cell types in all tissues involved in the brain’s stress response axis. That is, he catalogued how the stress response transduces biologically throughout the brain and body.

The axis starts with the hypothalamus, moves to the pituitary gland, and onwards to the adrenal glands. As the stress message moved from one tissue to the next, the gene expression in the cells and the tissues themselves underwent greater changes. The changes were most pronounced in the adrenal glands. The study was published in Sciences Advances in January.

Prof. Chen’s group found that this small set of adrenal cells has an outsized impact on the body’s ability to react and adapt to stress. Chronic stress appears to induce these cells to grow bigger and more active, with a range of negative consequences. The group posits that regulating the activity of these cells could be important in the treatment of neuropsychiatric and metabolic disorders. The discovery could also provide a wealth of information on the mechanisms of the stress axis—opening the door to even more insights.