Fight or Flight May Be in Our Bones

Fight or Flight May Be in Our Bones

by Diana Kwon, Scientific American

A protein released from bone is involved in triggering the body’s reaction to stress.

In the face of fear, whether it be caused by a grizzly bear or an audience waiting to hear you speak, your body initiates a reaction to stress. The breath quickens, the pupils dilate, the heart begins to pound. These automatic responses occur as a part of the so-called fight-or-flight response, the body’s evolved mechanism to threats around us. Scientists have known for decades that this reaction is triggered by hormones released by the adrenal glands, two cone-shaped organs that sit atop the kidneys. Now a new hormone has entered the picture—osteocalcin, a protein produced and secreted by bone.

Gerard Karsenty, a physician and geneticist at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, started his work on osteocalcin more than 20 years ago. At first, he set out to investigate calcification—a gradual hardening of bone caused by a buildup of minerals. At the time, Karsenty suspected that osteocalcin was a key player in this process because of its abundance in the skeleton. But when his team knocked out the gene coding for osteocalcin in mice, the calcification process remained unperturbed. Instead it found rodents lacking the protein had excess body fat and trouble breeding. These results were perplexing but fit with the fact that osteocalcin is present in blood. That connection led Karsenty to propose that osteocalcin was a hormone, released from the skeleton into the blood to help regulate functions in other parts of the body.

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