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Stress’s ill-effect on mental illness

ANTHONY RUSSO FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Ki Ann Goosens, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used to rail against the scientists who weren’t producing enough useful information about schizophrenia. Her brother suffers from the brain disorder, and she couldn’t understand why researchers hadn’t made more progress against it.

Then she realized that there were probably people suffering from mental illness who felt the same way about her.

A memory researcher, Goosens decided she could refocus her own work to be more useful to suffering people and families. Now she studies the intersection of stress and mental illness.

“People don’t really care about your prestigious science paper,” she said. “They want to know what can you do to help my sibling or my parent or my spouse.”

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In her latest research, Goosens decided to take a look at medications used to treat PTSD, which commonly include antidepressants that boost levels of the brain chemical serotonin. Goosens wanted to understand if that approach made biological sense.

Animals exposed to trauma were more likely to develop PTSD if they had been stressed first, she found in a study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

“The mice who are chronically stressed have a much stronger fear memory,” Goosens said.

Then she gave both groups of mice a drug that reduced serotonin, rather than one of the serotonin-boosting drugs often given to people with PTSD. The mice who had never been stressed were unaffected by the drug, but the stressed mice got better — they remembered the nasty event, but didn’t continue to suffer from it.

“This suggests the opposite of what we do now,” with PTSD treatment, Goosens said. Perhaps a better way to go — which still needs to be confirmed with years of research, she said — might be to give recently traumatized people a drug that blocks serotonin.

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Until researchers learn more, Goosens said, we can help ourselves by keeping our stress levels to a minimum.

In animals, Goosens said, a sense of control makes the exact same stressors feel different. A rat who can stop a shock to its tail will suffer fewer health problems than one who gets the same number and duration of shocks, but without the sense of control.

When she gets overwhelmed, Goosens reminds herself that being a professor at MIT was what she wanted in life. “I chose this pathway,” she said, “and I’m doing the things that I love.”

KAREN WEINTRAUB