I hate stress. Work-related stress is especially evil and can die in a fire. But every day, we're learning more and more about the biological and psychological factors involved in stress and how they influence each other. Case and point: Researchers from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia have just discovered that a specific receptor protein in the brain might mean dramatically different treatment for stress and anxiety in the future.

More protein, more resiliance

For the study, the researchers first used tools like a forced swim test to see how resilient or vulnerable rats were to stress. Then, they honed in on sphingosine-1-phosphate receptor 3 (S1PR3), which is a lipid molecule found on cell membranes. Scientists knew that S1PR3 is active in lots of body processes, such as inflammation, but there still are big question marks about how it works in your noodle.

The results of the study showed that rats classed as resilient had higher levels of S1PR3 than rats that were classed as vulnerable. That suggested that upping the level of the protein would increase stress-resilient behaviors, or conversely, that a decrease in the protein would make the rats more vulnerable to stress. The researchers confirmed this was indeed the case by changing whether the gene connected to S1PR3 was expressed or not.

But rats and people aren't the same thing. So the team went to the Veteran's Affairs hospital. There, they took the blood of patients who had been in combat and tested it to see how much S1PR3 was present.

The researchers found that the combat vets with PTSD had lower S1PR3 levels than the vets without PTSD. And the more severe the PTSD symptoms, the lower the S1PR3 levels were. Those results suggest that S1PR3 is a potential biomarker for PTSD.

What the protein could mean for your leadership and company

Now, the office is hardly the same as a battlefield, and those who have been on one don't deserve any degree of minimization. But extremely difficult work environments can be toxic, too, creating chronic sources of conflict and tension. Deliberate, repeated aggressions by coworkers or bosses arguably can create very real psychological questions about safety, competence and status. Many workers come from or are within home environments that could be classified as traumatic, as well, and may be dealing with the effects of those traumas on the job. These individuals sometimes can be classed as having complex PTSD that develops as a result of many events that happen over a long period.

Assuming that the researchers can verify with absolute certainty that S1PR3 is a valid biomarker for stress-related disorders, then professionals theoretically could use a simple blood test to predict how vulnerable or resilient people to stress. They also could make an educated guess about how severe symptoms might be, should a stress disorder present itself. Researchers also could use the biomarker to evaluate potential stress and anxiety treatments better, which could lead to new, better treatment options.

Workers could use S1PR3 screening and new stress and anxiety treatments to stay at peak performance, or to reevaluate which jobs might be most suitable. They would have an easy way to confirm to themselves and others that they need to address what has happened, or what is going on.

While employers have to respect privacy considerations, having a broad sense of how many people within their workforce have low S1PR3 could influence decisions about the type, amount, presentation and timing of specific operational challenges or supports. Screening also could spur more open conversations about mental health to create company cultures that are more accepting of stress and anxiety therapies.

To close, while we continue to grab new insights from new research, the cultural reality is that we still often determine how bad stress really is subjectively. The ability to finally more objectively quantify how our environment has shaped or is shaping us, however, appears on the horizon.

Published on: Sep 9, 2019
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