What is the stress vaccine and could we have one soon?

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Could there be a vaccine for stress one day? Recently, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder published some promising findings in the journal Psychopharmacology.

Christopher Lowry, the study’s senior author, is an award-winning Integrative Physiology Professor. Inspired by previously conducted research that posits that a modern-sterile society has caused us to lose contact with important germs and bacteria integral to healthy immune systems, Lowry and his team successfully identified a bacterium that helps block symptoms of anxiety, particularly the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid, was discovered to assist immune cells in precluding certain pathways that cause inflammation.


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“The hygiene hypothesis”

This exciting discovery was actually pioneered nearly 30 years ago, by an English scientist by the name of  David Strachan. Strachan’s particular findings were more specific to the lack of exposure of microorganisms crucial to young, developing children. The doctor believes the absence of these organisms have to lead to increased cases of allergies and asthma, thus introducing a term that has since come into common usage, “the hygiene hypothesis.”

The U.S Food and Drug Administration reports the following: “According to “the hygiene hypothesis,” the problem with extremely clean environments is that they fail to provide the necessary exposure to germs required to “educate” the immune system so it can learn to launch its defense responses to infectious organisms.”

The correlation between a healthy body and the role of bacteria is nothing resembling a novel concept; the correlation between a healthy mind and bacteria specifically has been previously researched as well. Bugs as drugs is a popular coinage for the research. As reported by Ladders, The Journal Nature Microbiology identified two bacterial genera, Coprococcus and Dialister, both bacterial genera that are consistently absent in sufferers of depression. “In our population-level study, we identified several groups of bacteria that co-varied with human depression and quality of life across populations,” said Professor Raes, who was the study’s lead researcher.

A few months later Lowry and his team have unveiled similar finds, although this latest study wasn’t Lowry’s first foray into the world of healthy bacteria. Previously, Lowry uncovered a soil based bacterium that acted like an antidepressant of sorts when administered to rodents. The results seemed to survive on its anti-inflammatory properties.

The stress vaccine

The newest study set its crosshair on specific fatty acids. When fatty acid 10 (Z) gets into cells, it blocks pathways that result in inflammation. Lowry hopes further research will lead to what he called a “stress vaccine.” An agent that can be given to first responders, soldiers, or anyone that has reason to anticipate a high-stress situation.  The fatty acid is derived from the soil residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae.

“The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation,” Lowry explained. “That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders.”

The for now titled Stress Vaccine might belie the end of the road, but there’s a lot more to be uncovered here. The soil is rich with bacteria ready to offer a plethora of boosts to both mental and somatic health. Lowry continues, “This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils. We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us.”