Last updated at 10:32 AM on 2nd August 2010
Forget the age-old remedies of yoga, meditation or popping pills. Relieving chronic stress could soon be as simple as having an injection, according to scientists.
Academics say they are close to developing the first vaccine for stress – a single jab that would help us relax without slowing down.
After 30 years of research into cures for stress, Dr Robert Sapolsky, professor of neuroscience at Stanford University in California, believes it is possible to alter brain chemistry to create a state of ‘focused calm’.
Professor Sapolsky claims he is on the path to a genetically engineered formula that would remove the need for relaxation therapies or prescription drugs.
Chronic stress, as opposed to everyday worries, is linked to illnesses ranging from diabetes to heart attacks. Professor Sapolsky, who first observed the damage caused by stress on animals in Kenya, has been studying hormones called glucocorticoids, which are part of the body’s immune system and help fight cancer and inflammation.
All mammals produce these hormones, which help them deal with a threat – often by running away.
But Professor Sapolsky has observed that, while a zebra will turn off the stress chemicals after escaping from a lion, modern man not only produces too many glucocorticoids in response to everyday alarms but cannot turn them off afterwards.
He says the hormone becomes toxic both biologically, by destroying brain cells and weakening the immune system, and socially, when people continue to snap at their friends or family hours after the original cause of tension has vanished.
After early setbacks, the Stanford team has adapted a herpes virus to carry engineered ‘neuroprotective’ genes deep into the brain to neutralise the rogue hormones before they can cause damage. The virus is now shown to work on rats.
‘To be honest, I’m still amazed that it works,’ Professor Sapolsky told Wired magazine recently.
He warned that human trials are years away, but added: ‘We have proved that it’s possible. We can reduce the neural damage caused by stress.’
Last week, a Stanford University colleague, who called the potential vaccine ‘the Sapolsky shot’, said: ‘In humans this engineered virus would short-circuit the neural feedback caused by stress, that lingering feeling of tension after a crisis has passed.
‘It would leave you fresher and ready to deal with another threat, so you can maintain your drive, but with more focused calm rather than bad temper and digestion.
‘This could change society.’ Professor Sapolsky’s preparatory work was published last October by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Of course, until the vaccine has been completed, those feeling overstretched will have to resort to more tried and tested methods.
Last week, Professor Sapolsky left Stanford to take his own ‘proven medicine’ for stress: He turned off his email and is spending August with his family.