Stress and diabetes found to be linked by a single gene

Jenny Decker RN's picture

Imagine if you could turn off the switch in your brain that causes anxiety. In addition to turning off your anxiety button, add to that the ability to stop overeating and as a result, lower your risk for type 2 diabetes mellitus. Researchers in Israel have discovered a single gene that links stress- related anxiety to overeating and diabetes.

In a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a group of 20 researchers in Israel linked a single gene to how the body responds to stress and the behavioral changes that occur as a result of high levels of stress. Dr. Alon Chen, a neuro-endocrinologist and chief researcher of the Neurobiology Department of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, spent four years in San Diego studying stress before moving back to Israel to begin work on the gene related to the stress response.

There are several disorders linked to stress. Some of these are anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, obesity, diabetes mellitus type 2, and arteriosclerosis. In our current society, these are at an all time high with the high stress levels inherent in many lifestyles. In recent studies, a connection was made between stress, changes in behavior such as anxiety, and changes in appetite such as overeating. However, it was not understood what the connection was.


With this new study, that connection has been discovered. A gene called Urocortin-3, or Ucn3, releases a protein that then binds with receptors on some nerve cells that produce effects in two parts of the brain. One part is the hypothalamus, which is responsible for hormonal regulation of much of the body. It also regulates hunger and satiety. The second site regulates behavior and anxiety related-behaviors. Essentially, the binding of the protein with the nerve cell receptors causes a full stress response in the body.

Dr. Chen and his researchers used a unique method to increase levels of the gene Ucn3 in lab mice. In the mice, these high levels induced increases in anxiety behaviors and they also experienced metabolic changes. The mice burned more sugar and less fatty acids, while the metabolic rate went up. In mice, the responses to changes in metabolism result in eating less. However, in many humans, the response is the opposite. Humans tend to overeat, causing obesity and an increased risk for diabetes. The mice also began to show early signs of diabetes type 2. This occurred because the muscle sensitivity to insulin dropped. Insulin is important because it acts as a window for the sugar to enter the cells for energy. If the insulin does not work or is not there, then sugar levels increase in the blood.

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Dr. Chen’s hope from the study is to understand how everything works. The study incorporated the way to turn on and turn off the receptors for Ucn3. Another purpose was to be able to block or even activate the gene as a way to manipulate physiological or behavioral changes. If researchers can understand what happens when, then it will make it easier to understand what is wrong in different stages of disease, such as diabetes mellitus. Imagine being able to shut off a craving for something sweet or even fatty and being able to control overeating. With this study, and more to come, it may be possible to prevent and treat certain diseases such as obesity and diabetes.