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A Mitochondrial Health Index Sensitive to Mood and Caregiving Stress



Chronic life stress, such as the stress of caregiving, can promote pathophysiology, but the underlying cellular mechanisms are not well understood. Chronic stress may induce recalibrations in mitochondria leading to changes either in mitochondrial content per cell, or in mitochondrial functional capacity (i.e., quality).


Here we present a functional index of mitochondrial health (MHI) for human leukocytes that can distinguish between these two possibilities. The MHI integrates nuclear and mitochondrial DNA-encoded respiratory chain enzymatic activities and mitochondrial DNA copy number. We then use the MHI to test the hypothesis that daily emotional states and caregiving stress influence mitochondrial function by comparing healthy mothers of a child with an autism spectrum disorder (high-stress caregivers, n = 46) with mothers of a neurotypical child (control group, n = 45).


The MHI outperformed individual mitochondrial function measures. Elevated positive mood at night was associated with higher MHI, and nightly positive mood was also a mediator of the association between caregiving and MHI. Moreover, MHI was correlated to positive mood on the days preceding, but not following the blood draw, suggesting for the first time in humans that mitochondria may respond to proximate emotional states within days. Correspondingly, the caregiver group, which had higher perceived stress and lower positive and greater negative daily affect, exhibited lower MHI. This effect was not explained by a mismatch between nuclear and mitochondrial genomes.


Daily mood and chronic caregiving stress are associated with mitochondrial functional capacity. Mitochondrial health may represent a nexus between psychological stress and health.

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