While we can acquire the therapeutic tools we need to deal with the world around us, some factors are out of our control. New research from the Medical University of Vienna suggests that one of the factors that is out of our control is the emotional development of our brain. Interactions between genes that control depression and environmental factors can determine if a person will recover from a crisis easily or if he or she will fall into a depression. This information could change the way we treat depression and anxiety by helping to identify if a person is simply going through a stressful situation or if he or she has a genetic predisposition to anxiety.

Measuring Stress and Hippocampi

The research team began by obtaining quantitative information about stressful life events. Events used in the study included:

  • Deaths in the family
  • Divorce
  • Unemployment
  • Relocation
  • Financial loss
  • Serious illness
  • Accident

After taking down this information from the participants, researchers performed a high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan on the patient's brain. Researchers also took a blood sample from participants, which was used for a genetic analysis.

How Genes Affect Mental Illness

Researchers found three versions of a gene that were attached to hippocampus development during and after a stressful life event. The size of the hippocampus directly affected how participants reacted to an outside factor, but life events did not affect the size of the hippocampus as much as a genetic predisposition to hippocampus size did. In other words, people are genetically predisposed to fall mentally ill after a stressful life event.

"People with the three gene versions believed to encourage depression had a smaller hippocampus than those with fewer or none of these gene versions, even though they had the same number of stressful life events," said Lukas Pezawas, study leader.

What It Means for Anxiety Treatment

“It is ultimately our genes that determine whether stress makes us psychologically unwell or whether it encourages our mental health," said Pezwas. Because of this, it can be incredibly difficult for some to recover from a stressful life event. Regardless of whether or not a person has a predisposition to mental illness, it is important to talk to someone about any stressful situations you might encounter. Talking a problem out can help you see different perspectives and overcome the stress you associate with it.

Date of original publication:


The Journal of Neuroscience

U. Rabl, B. M. Meyer, K. Diers, L. Bartova, A. Berger, D. Mandorfer, A. Popovic, C. Scharinger, J. Huemer, K. Kalcher, G. Pail, H. Haslacher, T. Perkmann, C. Windischberger, B. Brocke, H. H. Sitte, D. D. Pollak, J.-C. Dreher, S. Kasper, N. Praschak-Rieder, E. Moser, H. Esterbauer, L. Pezawas. Additive Gene-Environment Effects on Hippocampal Structure in Healthy Humans. Journal of Neuroscience, 2014; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3113-13.2014