Measuring the effects of stress on the ageing process


A researcher examining links between psychological states and ageing is the first Irish receipient of a Branco Weiss award, writes CORMAC SHERIDAN

WE KNOW stress is bad for the cardiovascular system, but an Irish researcher is also studying whether it also affects the ageing process. The question is whether our psychological state can influence our immune systems.

Aoife O’Donovan is the first Irish person to win a prestigious Branco Weiss Society in Science fellowship. She is currently pursuing postdoctoral research in psychobiology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), working at the intersection between psychology and immunology. Her work looks at connections between psychological states, such as stress or anxiety, and ageing processes that occur at a cellular or molecular level. “We’re at the stage where we’re trying to discover mechanisms mediating the relationship between psychological experiences and physical health outcomes,” she says.

The fellowship programme, which is funded by the Swiss entrepreneur and philanthropist Branco Weiss, who died recently, and administered by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, is particularly focused on interdisciplinary work. It will provide O’Donovan with a generous level of funding for up to five years. “What this allows me to do is become independent at the earliest possible stage,” she says.

O’Donovan is ideally placed to probe the links between psychology and physical health, having completed BA and MA degrees in psychology at UCC and NUI Galway respectively, before undertaking interdisciplinary PhD studies at UCD under the joint supervision of psychiatrist Kevin Malone, immunologist Cliona O’Farrelly (now at TCD) and psychologist Brian Hughes of NUI Galway.

On some days, she recalls, she would conduct psychological evaluations of patients in the morning, followed by high-tech molecular analyses of their blood samples in the afternoon.

She moved to UCSF for part of her PhD research on a Fulbright/Rotary International Fellowship. Although now working directly with research mentors Elissa Epel at UCSF and Thomas Neylan of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, O’Donovan also counts 2009 Nobel prizewinner Elizabeth Blackburn as a collaborator. Blackburn, also based at UCSF, has played a central role in uncovering the structure and function of telomeres, the protective “caps” or ends of chromosomes that help prevent genetic damage when cells replicate.

O’Donovan likens these structures to the plastic aglets found at the tips of one’s shoelaces. They gradually break down after a lifetime of cell divisions, and when the telomere damage reaches a certain threshold they are no longer able to replicate. How that relates to the age of the overall organism is less clear, however. “It’s very difficult to say that any one marker is a measure of biological ageing – it’s a multi-faceted phenomenon. However, there is increasing evidence that telomere length both shortens with age and predicts risk for diseases of ageing,” O’Donovan says.

Stress has already been linked to shorter telomere length. O’Donovan was part of a UCSF team that published a paper in the journal Public Library of Science Onethis year, which reported that exercise increased telomere length in post-menopausal women experiencing stress.

Her goal is to extend that work to the point where it can become clinically useful. “If we can figure out which kinds of psychological experiences elicit the stress responses that accelerate biological ageing, we could develop targeted psychological interventions that change people’s patterns of thinking,” O’Donovan says.