Your skin could hold the answer to your mental health

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Tiny changes on the surface of your skin may be the answer to early identification of stress, anxiety and depression before symptoms even present themselves, according to new research.

Associate Professor Eugene Nalivaiko

The exciting findings, led by the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute, could transform targeted prevention measures to improve mental well-being and help ease the pressure on our health system in the future.

In collaboration with Defence Science and Technology, Australian Army and Leuven University, Newcastle researchers have honed the use of ‘acoustic startle’ as a marker of resilience, a simple testing method with the potential to detect lower resilience levels associated with mental health risks.

“When we hear a sudden, loud sound – for example a gunshot – we naturally respond with instant sweat, a spike in heart rate and disrupted breathing, known as ‘acoustic startle’,” explained lead author, Associate Professor Eugene Nalivaiko.

“We can measure stress response with body sensors, the simplest being a skin conductance sensor attached to your fingertip, which picks up the activity of sweat glands – one of the fastest stress response systems in human body.

“If the same noxious sound is presented repeatedly, our stress response declines. We get used to the same stressor and essentially ‘habituate’, or get used to a sound.

“How fast we become accustomed to repeated presentations of the same stressor has a direct link to our level of resilience – those with high resilience habituate quickly and those with lower resilience more slowly or not at all.”

Previous studies have found this habituation rate can indicate whether a person has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or not, and can also identify individuals with anxiety and depression.

Building on these findings, the researchers worked with 30 healthy young participants who answered questions about their mental well-being ahead of undergoing acoustic startle testing.

“What we have now shown is that the habituation rates in our acoustic startle protocol are sensitive enough to distinguish between high and low resilience in healthy individuals who are not clinically diagnosed but may be susceptible to mental health issues later in life.”

Current methods of measuring resilience are limited, mostly relying on subjective data collected via surveys and self-report questionnaires.

“The problem with current methods of reporting is that people don’t always answer accurately, whether intentionally or not, leading to distortion in the data and leaving individuals at risk of the effects of trauma,” Associate Professor Nalivaiko said.

“Our new technique fills an important gap offering an objective marker of resilience.”

The researchers hope the findings, published in open access journal Plos One, could provide valuable information to develop prevention methods for those at risk.

“These results will be of particular use to organisations such as Defence, to identify those who may need extra support or increased resilience training,” Associate Professor Nalivaiko said.

“Eventually, we envisage something like this being of use in schools and other education environments to identify young people who may be particularly vulnerable to psychological stress, so we can ensure the best prevention measures are in place early in their development.”

*The research team is comprised of Associate Professor Eugene Nalivaiko, Professor Rohan Walker and Ashley Thomson, (University of Newcastle/HMRI), Kane Pfingst (Australian Army), Elke Vlemincx (Leuven University) and Professor Eugene Aidman (DST, Adelaide).

*HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.

Related news

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.