A tale of stress and broken hearts

Researchers found that stress is a risk factor for a fatal muscle disease that may cause a decline of patients' health due to heart failure.
January 27, 2021

Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a fatal muscle wasting disease that affects 1 in 3,500 boys, totaling 620 baby boys born each year in the US. Although the cause of Duchenne is known, there is still no cure, and scientists do not fully understand how the disease affects muscles and what can make the disease worse for some patients. Some factors that decrease a patient’s quality and expectancy of life include weight, lung function, weakened heart, and even stress.

The effect of stress on our health is often underplayed in our society.  At the clinical level, it is rarely considered in disease progression. When we experience stress we can physically feel it: our heart and breathing rate change, we might move more or move less.

A new study by the Bartolomucci and Ervasti labs at the University of Minnesota has brought to light how stress − an important environmental, internal, and external factor that affects the sick and healthy alike − can worsen the outcome of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. In science, we can’t always use humans in experiments, so we turn to mice to bring us closer to answering these important questions.

In the study, scientists used stressing techniques to stress out healthy mice and mice with muscular dystrophy. Guess what happened? Both types of mice experienced physical changes just like people do, but the dystrophic mice experienced the most and severe changes: a drop in blood pressure, increased heart rate, reduced mobility, and an increased production of stress hormones, all of which led to rapid heart damage. Ultimately, stress broke their hearts.

To date there is no cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, only treatments to improve their quality of life. Children who suffer from Duchenne are under constant stress, as their life progresses their mobility decreases, and they encounter themselves wheelchair bound in their early teens. 

The study reinforces the idea of devising extra, complementary therapies to decrease chronic stress to not only alleviate the mind but also the body. There is still much to learn about Duchenne and its effect on the body. Thinking out of the box and devoting time to studies like this is critical to further generate therapies to improve these children’s lives. 

As we wait for a cure, we must tackle the problem from all angles to increase life quality and expectancy for these patients. And in this case, more is more. 

Razzoli M, Lindsay A, Law ML, Chamberlain CM, Southern WM, Berg M, Osborn J, Engeland WC, Metzger JM, Ervasti JM, Bartolomucci A. Social stress is lethal in the mdx model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. EBioMedicine. 2020 May;55:102700. doi: 10.1016/j.ebiom.2020.102700. Epub 2020 Mar 16. PMID: 32192914; PMCID: PMC7251247.