Studying hair of ancient Peruvians answers questions about stress

December 09, 2009

Recent studies show that one in three Canadians suffer from stress and the number is on the rise. But stress isn't a new problem.

While the physiological state wasn't properly named until the 1930s, new research from The University of Western Ontario proves stress has plagued humans for hundreds, and perhaps thousands of years.

The first study of its kind, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, detected the stress hormone cortisol in the hair of ancient Peruvians, who lived between 550 and 1532 A.D.

When an individual is stressed - due to real or perceived threats - cortisol is released into nearly every part of the body, including blood, saliva, urine and hair.

Emily Webb, a PhD candidate at Western in Archaeological Science and the study's lead author, says the findings are important because it will allow us to better understand how ancient people behaved and felt during their time on Earth but more importantly, to better understand stress and how it affects us today.

"By studying the lives of people using traditional archeological methods like surveying and excavation and combining that with new research techniques like sampling ancient hair specimens, we can get a good picture of what life was like and how our ancestors may have responded to life-changing experiences like illness and disease," explains Webb.

Analysis of cortisol levels in ancient hair allows researchers to assess stress during a short, but critical, period of an individual's life. For this pilot study, the Western researchers selected hair samples from 10 individuals from five different archaeological sites in Peru, and analyzed them in segments to determine cortisol levels.

While many of the individuals studied showed high stress levels right before death, Webb noted that a majority also experienced multiple episodes of stress throughout their final years of their life, again proving that much like today, stress was very much apart of ancient Peruvian's daily lives.
-end-
Contributing to the Western research were members of the Faculty of Social Science and the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry including Webb, Steven Thomson (Department of Physiology and Pharmacology), Andrew Nelson (Department of Anthropology), Christine White (Department of Anthropology, Canada Research Chair in Bioarchaeology and Isotopic Anthropology), Dr. Gideon Koren (Departments of Physiology and Pharmacology, Medicine, Paediatrics, Ivey Chair in Molecular Toxicology), Dr. Michael Rieder (Departments of Physiology and Pharmacology, Medicine, Pediatrics, Lawson Research Institute, Robarts Research Institute, CIHR-GSK Chair in Paediatric Clinical Pharmacology) and Dr. Stan Van Uum (Department of Medicine and Lawson Research Institute).

MEDIA CONTACT: Jeff Renaud, Senior Media Relations Officer, 519-661-2111, ext. 85165

University of Western Ontario

Related Stress Articles from Brightsurf:

Stress-free gel
Researchers at The University of Tokyo studied a new mechanism of gelation using colloidal particles.

Early life stress is associated with youth-onset depression for some types of stress but not others
Examining the association between eight different types of early life stress (ELS) and youth-onset depression, a study in JAACAP, published by Elsevier, reports that individuals exposed to ELS were more likely to develop a major depressive disorder (MDD) in childhood or adolescence than individuals who had not been exposed to ELS.

Red light for stress
Researchers from the Institute of Industrial Science at The University of Tokyo have created a biphasic luminescent material that changes color when exposed to mechanical stress.

How do our cells respond to stress?
Molecular biologists reverse-engineer a complex cellular structure that is associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS

How stress remodels the brain
Stress restructures the brain by halting the production of crucial ion channel proteins, according to research in mice recently published in JNeurosci.

Why stress doesn't always cause depression
Rats susceptible to anhedonia, a core symptom of depression, possess more serotonin neurons after being exposed to chronic stress, but the effect can be reversed through amygdala activation, according to new research in JNeurosci.

How plants handle stress
Plants get stressed too. Drought or too much salt disrupt their physiology.

Stress in the powerhouse of the cell
University of Freiburg researchers discover a new principle -- how cells protect themselves from mitochondrial defects.

Measuring stress around cells
Tissues and organs in the human body are shaped through forces generated by cells, that push and pull, to ''sculpt'' biological structures.

Cellular stress at the movies
For the first time, biological imaging experts have used a custom fluorescence microscope and a novel antibody tagging tool to watch living cells undergoing stress.

Read More: Stress News and Stress Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.