Researchers have identified neurons that were shown to regulate anxiety levels in the brains of mice. These ‘anxiety cells’ may shed light on how the human brain responds to intense stress and in turn, open the way to potential treatments to combat anxiety.
Neuroscientists from the University of California, San Francisco, and Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center started out to pinpoint what exactly in the brain causes the feeling of anxiety. The study was published in the journal, Neuron.
“The therapies we have now have significant drawbacks,” said Mazen Kheirbek, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCSF and lead author of the study. “This is another target that we can try to move the field forward for finding new therapies.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) an anxiety disorder is defined by one’s constant fear and worry during day to day activities. Some examples include panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.
Researchers were able to pinpoint these anxiety cells by inserting microscopes into the brains of mice to record cell activity in the hippocampus. This is a region in the brain present in both mice and humans considered to be responsible for helping us learn, create memories, and feel emotions. After inserting the microscopes, the researchers then put the mice in stressful situations and monitored their brain activity.
Co-author of the study and professor of psychiatry at CUIMC, Rene Hen, Ph.D., claims that ‘anxiety cells’ are those that become active when animals are put in places that are “innately frightening to them”. In the case of mice, this is when they are in an open area where predators are likelier to attack, or an elevated platform.
To be certain that these cells caused anxiety, the researchers used a technique called optogenetics, which involve the use of beams of light that control neuron activity. By turning the cells on or off, the rodents exhibited drastically different behavior. When the cells were silenced, the mice spent more time climbing elevated platforms while stimulating the cells caused them to exhibit more anxiety behaviors.
Researchers hope that this discovery may one day lead to treating humans with anxiety disorders.
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