Dennis Hernaus Dennis Hernaus Sacha Ruland

One step closer to an anti-stress pill

In Mind
Written by  Femke Kools Tuesday, 27 January 2015 11:07

If PhD candidate Dennis Hernaus had been in a PET scanner in recent weeks, it would have probably become apparent that the dopamine levels in his brain had reached unprecedented heights. The neurotransmitter dopamine is best known for its role in the experience of happiness. “Completing my dissertation, working towards my defence on 22 January and the Kootstra Talent Fellowship I received in December were all important reward experiences,” he laughs. For about ten years, the fact that dopamine also plays a role in the experience of stress has been part of the scientific understanding on which his dissertation builds. In the future, he hopes to contribute to the development of medication for stress-related psychological problems.

Why are some people more sensitive to stress than others? That was the basis for the PhD programme which Dennis Hernaus began four years ago. After earning his bachelor's and research master’s degrees in Maastricht, he was able to stay at Kings College London, where he learned how the dopamine system can be mapped with imaging techniques such as fMRI. “Then I saw this clinically relevant project in Maastricht on stress and dopamine, and I decided to apply.” Dopamine is a neurotransmitter: a substance that causes brain cells communicate with each other. Stress can be seen as an enhanced form of attention, and brain functions having to do with attention had been a strong interest of his for years. “Why do some people remember something well while others don’t? Dopamine also plays an important role in that.”


Low dopamine levels (DA levels) in the brain during stress are associated with increased sensitivity to stress and psychological symptoms due to stress; this is the main conclusion from his research. High DA levels are protective against stress. For this study, participants had to lie in a PET scanner while calculating sums that had been manipulated. In the experimental condition, they then received negative feedback on how they had performed and were subsequently asked a number of questions to indicate how stressed they felt. In the control condition, the same thing happened, but they got no negative feedback, and the participants indicated that they felt less stress. Hernaus summarises the results: “The more stressed you are, the lower your DA levels. And also in everyday life, when participants noted a few times a day what they did and how stressed they felt, it was found that people with low levels experienced more stress.”

Chicken or egg

The question of whether stress lowers the DA levels or low DA levels increase stress is yet to be answered. “To establish a causal link, you would have to follow people over very long period of time, since childhood. It seems logical that if people continually experience stress, there is a change in their brain—that people are more susceptible to stress because the DA level is higher or lower, but we can’t determine that on the basis of this study.” To establish a causal link, pharmacological studies are needed. Dennis Hernaus would love to conduct such a study and has submitted several grant applications for this. “I would like to see if healthy volunteers who have taken medication are more sensitive or resistant to stress. I want to know if the dopamine system is really as important as we think it is.” Since many existing medications already affect the dopamine system (e.g. Ritalin, ADHD medication or medication for psychosis or schizophrenia), it wouldn’t be necessary to develop a new pill for this kind of study.


Of course, an ‘anti-stress pill’ would also be interesting for the stressed manager who works 120 hours per week and has too many balls in the air, “or the academic who starts to use the medication more frequently to perform better”, says Hernaus. “That is a form of doping that we shouldn’t want. You don’t take away the cause of stress with such a pill. If you can’t do that on your own, therapy can help. Our department is also investigating whether meditation or mindfulness can make people more resistant to stress. I personally think that in the example of the manager, the stress will eventually take over; there’s no pill that can help you cope with such a pace.” One application that he sees for this future anti-stress pill is to support therapy. Stress is an important factor in the development of a psychosis. “If you can also use medication to prevent people with an ultra-high risk from developing a psychosis, that’s of course great.” Finding such a clinical application for scientific research is what drives Dennis Hernaus, who sees his future in science. “I get the most energy from that, and my DA levels indeed go up”, he concludes.

Dennis Hernaus defended his dissertation ‘Dopayours is not dopamine: Genetic, environmental and pathological variations in dopaminergic stress processing’ on Thursday, 22 January at Maastricht University. His supervisor was Prof. Inez Myin-Germeys. Hernaus works at the Department of Psychiary and Neuropsychology at UM.

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