Johns Hopkins researchers find link between adolescent stress and severe mental illness later in life

New research from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine reveals how stressors experienced during adolescence, such as neglect, may be linked to severe mental illness in adulthood for those with a genetic predisposition, reports ScienceDaily. The study, conducted with mice, suggests that both genetic and environmental factors are involved in the development of mental illness. The findings support the argument for earlier identification of and intervention for those adolescents who are at a higher risk for severe mental illness as adults.

“[T]he new study points to the need to think about better preventive care in teenagers who have mental illness in their families, including efforts to protect them from social stressors, such as neglect, [says study leader Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine].”

The researchers isolated mice from their rodent peers for three weeks to simulate the social isolation often associated with being a teenager. For those mice who were both isolated and had genetic risk factors for mental illness, the researchers observed behavioral patterns associated with being mentally ill– for example, hyperactivity–after the three weeks. When these mice were returned to the general population, they continued to display these new behaviors.

“‘Genetic risk factors in these experiments were necessary, but not sufficient, to cause behaviors associated with mental illness in mice,” Sawa says. “Only the addition of the external stressor — in this case, excess cortisol related to social isolation — was enough to bring about dramatic behavior changes.'”

The findings appeared in the January 18 issue of the journal Science.