A Glimpse at the Mind-Body Connection Under the Microscope

October 7, 2021

Key Findings 
  • Psychological stress leads to physiological changes within microscopic parts of the human cell
  • Microscopic change affects cellular signaling, which carries through levels of the human body complex
  • Human aging is not necessarily linear and this biological malleability is linked to brain-body processes


My parents lived long and healthy lives, so I will, too?

In fact, our DNA is responsible for about 7 percent of our longevity, and it is static; under a microscope you can’t tell whether it comes from the living or the dead. Dr. Martin Picard, a recipient of a 2021 Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award, explains that the defining factor between life and death likely lies in the hundreds to thousands of mitochondria within each cell in the body.

Mitochondria are the primary sources of energy and electrical signaling that sustains life. Picard, a pioneer and foundational contributor in the emerging field of mitochondrial psychobiology, was nominated for the FABBS award by the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research. “Fundamentally, we want to understand what keeps people healthy,” says Picard, who studies the connection between the mind – this includes stress and other life experiences – and the body. “If we understood how psychological states influence biology and disease risk, that could change a lot of things in how we teach and practice medicine.”

“…these studies show the flexibility and malleability of human aging, and how this biological malleability is linked to brain-body processes, and to mitochondria.”


Studies have shown that psychological stress leads to physical and behavioral changes of mitochondria and on parts of the chromosomes within the cell nucleus. These parts, called telomeres, are protective caps for chromosomes that have been likened in function to plastic caps on shoelaces to prevent fraying. However, with each cell division, these caps shorten. Research within the domain of psychosomatic medicine have shown that the telomere shortening can be compounded by factors such as smoking cigarettes or psychological stress. Chronic stress triggers inflammation and that inflammation can in turn trigger disease – elucidating the mind-mitochondrial connection.

Picard explores the levels of such microscopic signaling and how that carries out through the complex levels of the human body. In new studies, Picard and his team are researching mitochondrial health over time, collecting saliva and blood samples from lab participants on different days, during various stages of psychological health, and periods of sleep and rest.  Among other questions: What happens to mitochondria when we sleep?  Do they, too, go through a restorative phase?

Exercise that increases the heart and breathing rates also helps to keep mitochondria healthy, as does restricting food intake, for example, to the hours between noon and 6 p.m. “It’s healthy for an organism to be hungry once in a while,” Picard explains.

Aging, he adds, is not necessarily linear.  A new study from his laboratory showed cases where hairs greyed during periods of stress and later reverted to their original color. Interestingly, the mitochondria in hairs also showed changes with stress and greying. “We’re not saying that the whole body will permanently rejuvenate,” Picard cautions. “But these studies show the flexibility and malleability of human aging, and how this biological malleability is linked to brain-body processes, and to mitochondria.”

Picard is an associate professor of Behavioral Medicine (in Psychiatry and in Neurology) at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC). His research is funded in part by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Aging, and the Wharton Fund. He will be delivering the lecture, “Biomarkers of Aging, Psychosocial & Behavioral Influences,” at the annual Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research Meeting for 2021 (see more here).

Potential for Future Impact

  • Developing tools to monitor mitochondrial health
  • Understanding the mind-mitochondria connection
  • Enhancing the mitochondrial biology approach on psychosomatic medicine

Dr. Martin Picard is a recipient of the 2021 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research (ABMR). You can read more about him at the links below:

Picard Lab




ABMR, Early Career, Early Career Award