There are specific brain cells that seem to control anxiety levels in mice, scientists have found. This discovery could lead to more efficient treatments for anxiety disorders, which affect around one in five American adults.
Mazen Kheirbek, assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco and an author of the study, said, “The therapies we have now have significant drawbacks. This is another target that we can try to move the field forward for finding new therapies.”
However, the research is still in its early stages, and there is no guarantee that lab findings in animals could turn out the same way in humans, NPR reports.
This finding is one of the most recent instances of the “tremendous progress” research and science have made towards understanding how the brain processes anxiety, according to Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. The agency helped fund the research.
If we can learn enough, we can develop the tools to turn on and off the key players that regulate anxiety in people.
Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder, all of which mean people who have it are affected by worry that does not go away.
Kheirbek and a team of researchers from Columbia University found the cells in the hippocampus of mice, the area of the brain known to be involved in anxiety, memory and navigation.
The team put some mice in a maze with pathways leading to open areas. “Mice tend to be afraid of open places,” Kheirbek said. The researchers then tracked brain activity in the rodents. “And what we found is that these cells became more active whenever the animal went into an area that elicits anxiety.”
Using a method called optogenetics, the team then set out to find what was causing the anxiety. Kheirbek said, “If we turn down this activity, will the animals become less anxious? And what we found was that they did become less anxious. They actually tended to want to explore the open arms of the maze even more.”
But there is more than just anxiety happening in these cells, and there might be an extended network working. Gordon said, “You can think of this paper as one brick in a big wall.”
The study was published in Neuron.