Researchers relied on a method called calcium imaging, in which tiny microscopes were placed into the brains of the mice. When the mice were in the risky, exposed areas, cells lit up in part of the hippocampus, an area of the brain closely associated with emotions, memory, and anxiety.
The mice became so fearful and anxious that they lost all interest in exploring their surroundings. Scientists soon discovered that higher levels of stress resulted in greater activity in the neurons.
By shining a beam of light into the affected cells (a technique known as optogenetics), the anxiety was quelled and the mice were able to explore and wander through the maze without fear. Researchers also discovered that the exact opposite is true – when the beam of light was aimed at the brains of anxiety-free mice safely located in the secure areas, significant stress responses were recorded.
Although the human brain obviously isn’t the same as the brain of a mouse, many of the processes are similar. The commonalities lead scientists to believe that human brain cells may react to stress in much the same way. This new knowledge also confirms the long-held belief that anxiety is not simply an emotional response, but a physical disorder,.
Scientists are hopeful that the study may lead to additional research, thus paving the way for more effective treatments for anxiety disorders, or improvement in already existing treatments.