Anxiety Neurons

At least 20 percent of adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point, sometimes significant enough to interfere with work, school, and other activities of daily life. In spite of its prevalence, the disorder isn’t well understood and many treatment centers and rehabs are woefully inadequate when it comes to helping clients who struggle with anxiety.

Researchers are scrambling to find better ways to manage this life-altering disorder. Counseling or mindfulness meditation for anxiety may be helpful. Although anti-anxiety medications are the answer for some people, others experience a number of unpleasant side effects.

The good news is that a recent research study may eventually lead to better, more targeted forms of treatment for anxiety. The study, published in the January, 2018 journal, Neuron, was performed by a team of researchers from the University of California San Francisco and Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

The Study

A team of scientists placed a group of mice in a maze designed specifically for the study. Although much of the maze was securely enclosed, some pathways led to open areas or raised platforms – situations that naturally cause tremendous stress in mice because of the heightened exposure to predators.

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.

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