Anxiety cells in brain identified

Anxiety cells in brain identified

By Vidhya Sivakumaran

With anxiety disorders on the rise, it’s become of greater interest to society to understand the disorder. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect approximately 40 million adults in the United States (or about 18% of the population) every year. In addition, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 260 million live with anxiety disorders. They report that anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders worldwide, with specific phobia, depressive disorder, and social phobia being the most common anxiety disorders.

Possible causes of anxiety disorders:

As common as this may be, physicians and scientists are still stumped by what causes such a disorder. Current treatments are only partially effective, and while treatable, only about 37% of those suffering from these disorders receive treatment. Researchers hypothesize that a combination of genes, environmental factors, and changes inside the brain lead to anxiety. While they have suspected there is a link between altered circuitry in the brain and anxiety disorders, that link was yet to be firmly established until earlier this year.

New research pinpoints anxiety-causing cells in mice:

A collaboration between researchers at several U.S. universities have identified the brain cells associated with anxiety in mice. Working with the mouse model, scientists discovered that the cells in the hippocampus, a portion of the brain involved in the consolidation of information such as short-term and long-term memory, communicate with the hypothalamus. These cells alert the mice to avoid a theoretically dangerous situation. The research team put mice in a maze in which certain paths led to open areas, which mice are known to be generally afraid of. The team monitored the activity of the brain cells in the hippocampal region in order to see which cells fired. They found that this area of the brain is enriched with cells that control anxiety and which, in turn, can influence inborn anxious behavior.

In addition, the scientists were able to control the activity of the anxiety enriched region using an optogenetics technique which uses light to control cells in living tissue. They were able to turn up the activity of the cells in the hippocampal region, which led to the mice becoming more anxious and resulted in increased avoidance. The opposite was true when they turned the activity down; mice spent more time wandering around open areas and away from the protective walls.

One brick in a big wall:

This work contributes to a growing body of research that is providing impressive insights into the causes and treatments for anxiety disorders. “You can think of this paper as one brick in a big wall”, said Joshua Gordon, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health. This discovery of hardwired anxiety circuits could help researchers better understand the the dynamics of anxiety disorders in humans and, it is hoped, contribute to further breakthroughs such as an effective treatment for anxiety disorders.

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