Presented by Roulett William Smith, PhD: Processes of evolution are among the most awesome developments during the 4.5+ billion years associated with the existence of this Earth. Among the many forces contributing to evolution are climate, tectonic plate movements and stresses on evolved group behaviors (including common sense). This presentation will focus on the potential public health and mental health consequences of the extraordinary stresses associated with two rare and intertangled contemporaneous events requiring common sense; to wit, the COVID-19 pandemic and outbursts of rage, social unrest and mass demonstrations associated with George Floyd’s death.
For living systems (whether in plants, animals, or other living systems),”fight or flight” mechanisms (and their underlying behaviors and responses to stress) are among the obvious contributors to evolutionary developments. In animals, the autonomic nervous system consists of sympathetic and parasympathetic components. Fight and/or flight mechanisms are associated with the sympathetic nervous system and its associated increases or decreases in various stress hormones (e.g., cortisol/glucocorticoids, catecholamines, thyroid, growth hormone, prolactin, vasopressin, gonadotropins, insulin, et al.). The parasympathetic nervous system regulates relaxation and slows high-energy functions.
Stress also is associated with structural changes. For example, in brain chronic stress can lead to both neurogenesis and cell death in the hippocampus, increases in myelin-producing cells, reduction in gray matter (responsible for high-order cognitive functions), brain shrinkage, losses in short-term and spatial memories, and increased risks for mental illness.
Most reports on the COVID-19 pandemic focus on at-risk subpopulations. These include: travelers on ocean liners or military/naval vessels; homeless persons; essential employees; senior citizens (in senior housing, hospice or nursing facilities); persons in prisons and detention centers; persons with intellectual disabilities; and, persons with various co-morbidities. It now is anticipated that the COVID-19 pandemic will give rise to more than 13 long-term effects on mental health (e.g., depression, post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], anxiety disorders, shame, avoidance disorders, burnout, alcoholism and substance abuse, isolation and estrangement, loss of identity or purpose, suicide, et al.). Common sense issues also may affect public and mental health.
During this pandemic, a cohort of youngsters is especially noteworthy for outbreaks of Kawasaki-like autoimmune presentations. This finding suggests that childhood stresses (whether directly or indirectly involving the COVID-19 virus) may be triggering a stress-activated virus known to be associated with Kawasaki disease. This further suggests that separate stress-activated viruses also may be significant and evolutionary cofactors in the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, my earlier research from the 1980s reveals that small RNA particles (snRNPs) encoded by stress-activated gamma herpesviruses (e.g., the Epstein-Barr virus, as well as selected other stress-activated viruses) may be transmissible and infectious (i.e., autovirulence). Autovirulence can give rise to transcription and/or translation errors for host genes (GERRs) and a plethora of downstream disorders.
To date, GERRs are responsible for virtually all autoimmune disorders many congenital disorders, autism spectrum disorders, many tri-nucleotide repeat (TNR) disorders, and male homosexuality. Hence, one now can anticipate that the extraordinary stresses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and concurrent mass demonstrations may give rise to novel future pathologies and other evolutionary outcomes.