Numerous research studies have shown that massage therapy relaxes the autonomic nervous system, reduces blood pressure, reduces depression and boosts immune-system function—so it’s no wonder so many clients seek out massage therapy for stress relief.

In a new, unrelated study, researchers set out to determine how stress and depression shrink the brain.

“Major depression or chronic stress can cause the loss of brain volume, a condition that contributes to both emotional and cognitive impairment,” noted a press release from Yale University, where the research was conducted. “Now a team of researchers …has discovered one reason why this occurs: a single genetic switch that triggers loss of brain connections in humans and depression in animal models.”

The findings show that the genetic switch known as a transcription factor represses the expression of several genes that are necessary for the formation of synaptic connections between brain cells, which in turn could contribute to loss of brain mass in the prefrontal cortex, the press release noted.

“We wanted to test the idea that stress causes a loss of brain synapses in humans,” said senior author Ronald Duman, the Elizabeth Mears and House Jameson Professor of Psychiatry and professor of neurobiology and of pharmacology. “We show that circuits normally involved in emotion, as well as cognition, are disrupted when this single transcription factor is activated.”

The findings were reported in the Aug. 12 issue of the journal Nature Medicine.

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