Martin Picard: Exploring the Mind-Mitochondria Connection
As befits the child of a scientist, Martin Picard’s young son, 3, is already learning about biology with an age-appropriate textbook, “Cell Biology for Babies.” Picard winces a little whenever the book calls mitochondria the “powerhouses of the cell” but figures he has plenty of time as his son grows older to explain why the tiny organelles are much more than simple energy sources.
Picard is a leading proponent of mitochondrial psychobiology (a phrase he coined), an emerging field that examines how psychological states like stress influence mitochondrial functions, which in turn influence mental and physical health.
“The powerhouse analogy is outdated and one-dimensional and can impede science by limiting researchers’ perceptions of what mitochondria can do,” says Picard, associate professor of behavioral medicine in psychiatry and neurology.
Among other roles, mitochondria are now known to trigger cell death when needed, synthesize all circulating steroid hormones related to reproduction, and command the nucleus to turn on or turn off genes.
“It makes more sense to think of mitochondria as the information processors of the cell,” he says. “They are equipped with a surprisingly wide variety of receptors to sense what’s going on in the cell, they integrate all this information, and they then tell the nucleus and other organelles what to do to maintain the health of the organism.”
It’s hard not to admire these crafty organelles, hundreds or thousands of which are packed into some cells.
And for Picard, it’s not a stretch to think that mitochondria may have a bigger impact than the genome on our mental and physical health: “Genes are inert. Mitochondria are dynamic and give us the ability to sense and perceive, integrate information, adapt, and thrive.”
Mitochondria, stress, and health
Though he’s not a clinician, Picard spends half a day in a Columbia neurology clinic with Michio Hirano, MD, who specializes in treating people who are born with mutations or deletions in their mitochondrial genome.
Mitochondrial diseases are rare, but they show that cognitive and psychiatric issues can arise if there’s something wrong with mitochondria.
That stress could cause subtle changes in mitochondria that affect mental health is a hypothesis that Picard has been testing since he joined the Columbia faculty in 2015, quickly building a lab with an array of interdisciplinary research projects.
The latest results from the lab are starting to back up the idea.
In a study published in August and highlighted in Nature, Picard’s team found that stress can alter the activity of the brain’s mitochondria and predict subsequent anxiety-like and social behaviors in mice. But not all brain mitochondria had the same impact. [read more]
Source: CUIMC Newsroom