Hyderabad: A specific form of protein ubiquitin, whose general function is to break down proteins (proteolysis) in humans, has been found to strengthen fear-based memories, strangely only in women’s brains.
Researchers in the US have found ubiquitin regulates events in memories causing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in female brains.
The researchers, whose study was published in the journal ‘Molecular Psychiatry’ from Virginia Tech, USA, said ubiquitin regulates cells through normal daily functions and for it to be doing this function in the context of PTSD in females was ‘surprising.’
The name of this protein, ubiquitin originates from the word ubiquitous because of its presence across all walks of life.
“The protein is primarily thought of as a protein that marks other proteins to be destroyed,” said Tim Jarome, an associate professor at the university. The form of this protein that the researchers could manipulate, called K-63, was found to be selective in forming fear memories in the female brain.
“Oftentimes, molecules are found in the brain, which is involved in forming these fear-based memories in both sexes, and this is the first time that we found one that’s selectively involved in one sex. In particular, this was found in the sex that seems to be more likely to have PTSD,” said Jarome.
Explaining the correlation between the protein and PTSD, Dr. Charan Teja Koganti, a neuropsychiatrist at KIMS and associate professor at VRK Medical College, said, “Due to the impact of this protein, it was found that fear worsened over time instead of allaying. For instance, if in childhood, a woman had been afraid of dark alleys and ghosts, as an adult, her fear of darkness and ghosts was found to be strengthened rather than getting dissipated. In general, ubiquitin helps in proteolysis or the breakdown function of other proteins. Ubiquitin functions through two neurotransmitters — glutamate and GABA, both of which help in higher brain functions such as learning and memory. However, ubiquitin also strengthened or reconsolidated the formation of fear-based memories. It’s not yet known why exactly it affects only the female brains but probably because emotion centres are more developed in women and they are more likely to suffer from PTSD.”
Hope for new drugs to treat PTSD
The discovery could lead to the development of better therapeutic treatments, including pharmacological approaches for PTSD by having a specific molecule to target, the researchers said.
“If this specific protein ubiquitin can be manipulated, then the fear-based memories can be reduced or may become extinct, and thus further research can help develop new drugs for the treatment of PTSD,” said Dr. Charan Teja.
PTSD and its symptoms
Elaborating on PTSD, Dr. Charan Teja said, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as the name suggests, is triggered following a traumatic event either by experiencing it or witnessing it. Patients experience extremely distressing symptoms such as intense sadness, extreme fear, anxiety, anger outbursts, self-harm, sleep disturbances, and panic attacks. Patients relive the trauma through flashbacks and nightmares. Flashbacks may be so vivid that people feel they are reliving the traumatic experience or seeing it before their eyes. These symptoms last much longer after the traumatic event has ended.”
Needs therapy and medication
“One needs professional help here where psychiatrists use therapies such as debriefing from trauma, trauma-based cognitive behavioural therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, etc., along with medications to manage the symptoms effectively,” the neuropsychiatrist added.