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Does our skin hold the key to mental health issues?

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 research from the University of Newcastle.

Researchers from UoN and the Hunter Medical Research Institute – in conjunction with Defence Science and Technology, Australian Army and Leuven University – honed the use of “acoustic startle” as a marker of resilience, a form of testing that, UoN noted, could have 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.”

The researchers worked with “30 healthy young participants” who answered questions about their mental wellbeing 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,” said Mr Nalivaiko.

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

The researchers hope that 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,” he 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.”

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain