Telomerase activity plays an essential role in cell survival, by lengthening telomeres and promoting cell growth and longevity. It is now possible to quantify the low levels of telomerase activity in human leukocytes. Low basal telomerase activity has been related to chronic stress in people and to chronic glucocorticoid exposure in vitro. Here we test whether leukocyte telomerase activity changes under acute psychological stress. We exposed 44 elderly women, including 22 high stress dementia caregivers and 22 matched low stress controls, to a brief laboratory psychological stressor, while examining changes in telomerase activity of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs). At baseline, caregivers had lower telomerase activity levels than controls, but during stress telomerase activity increased similarly in both groups. Across the entire sample, subsequent telomerase activity increased by 18% one hour after the end of the stressor (p<0.01). The increase in telomerase activity was independent of changes in numbers or percentages of monocytes, lymphocytes, and specific T cell types, although we cannot fully rule out some potential contribution from immune cell redistribution in the change in telomerase activity. Telomerase activity increases were associated with greater cortisol increases in response to the stressor. Lastly, psychological response to the tasks (greater threat perception) was also related to greater telomerase activity increases in controls. These findings uncover novel relationships of dynamic telomerase activity with exposure to an acute stressor, and with two classic aspects of the stress response - perceived psychological stress and neuroendocrine (cortisol) responses to the stressor.
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