Telomere attrition is a hallmark of cellular aging and shorter telomeres have been reported in mood and anxiety disorders. Telomere shortening is counteracted by the enzyme telomerase and cellular protection is also provided by the antioxidant enzyme glutathione peroxidase (GPx). Here, telomerase, GPx, and telomeres were investigated in 46 social anxiety disorder (SAD) patients in a within-subject design with repeated measures before and after cognitive behavioral therapy. Treatment outcome was assessed by the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale (self-report), administered three times before treatment to control for time and regression artifacts, and posttreatment. Venipunctures were performed twice before treatment, separated by 9 weeks, and once posttreatment. Telomerase activity and telomere length were measured in peripheral blood mononuclear cells and GPx activity in plasma. All patients contributed with complete data. Results showed that social anxiety symptom severity was significantly reduced from pretreatment to posttreatment (Cohen’s d = 1.46). There were no significant alterations in telomeres or cellular protection markers before treatment onset. Telomere length and telomerase activity did not change significantly after treatment, but an increase in telomerase over treatment was associated with reduced social anxiety. Also, lower pretreatment telomerase activity predicted subsequent symptom improvement. GPx activity increased significantly during treatment, and increases were significantly associated with symptom improvement. The relationships between symptom improvement and putative protective enzymes remained significant also after controlling for body mass index, sex, duration of SAD, smoking, concurrent psychotropic medication, and the proportion of lymphocytes to monocytes. Thus, indices of cellular protection may be involved in the therapeutic mechanisms of psychological treatment for anxiety.
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