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Discovery of ‘anxiety cells’ in the brain proves a major breakthrough in anxiety disorder treatment

Discovery of ‘anxiety cells’ in the brain proves a major breakthrough in anxiety disorder treatment

Anxiety is a common reaction to stress and can be helpful in some situations. However, for some people, anxiety can become too excessive turning into an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States, affecting 40 million adults in the age group 18 and above or 18.1 percent of the total population every year.

Usually, anxiety disorders cause exaggerated and irrational worries that can interfere with daily activities. Furthermore, they can lead to a heightened baseline level response not necessarily related to a specific cause. Some of the prevalent forms of anxiety disorders are generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder (SAD), etc.

Though scientists have already identified many brain cells related to anxiety, they have for the first time discovered the brain cells that represent the state of anxiety. Though the research conducted on mice is still in its early stage, the above finding will play a crucial role in enhancing the treatment for anxiety disorders. This also throws light upon the working of the anxiety in the brain.

The team has also discovered how to control these worry-inducing brain cells and reduce the symptoms of anxiety. Termed as “anxiety cells,” scientists found these cells in the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with memories, emotions and motivation. According to Rene Hen, PhD, Professor of Neuroscience and Pharmacology (in psychiatry) at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), the cells probably exist in humans as well. These findings may have the potential to significantly help people suffering from anxiety in future and could lead to further breakthroughs in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

Methodology and key findings

In this study, researchers used a technique called calcium imaging on mice. They inserted tiny microscopes into the mice brains to record brain activity as the mice moved freely. Since mice are afraid of open spaces, they were placed in a maze where some pathways led to such areas. They were also exposed to predators and elevated platforms. The researchers identified that the exposure to open areas and other stressors led to the activation of anxiety cells.

The scientists then showed that these “anxiety cells” are connected directly to another brain region responsible for triggering avoidance behaviour in animals called the hypothalamus. To test the function of these neural projections, researchers used the technique of “optogenetics” (beams of light used to control neuron activity) to regulate the fired cells by switching them up and down. When the researchers switched down the cells, the mice spent more time on the elevated platforms and away from the protective walls, demonstrating less anxious behaviour. However, when they triggered the cells, they showed more anxiety-ridden behaviours, even when in a safe space.

The researchers associated the outcome of these cells to the hypothalamus, which is known to control behaviours associated with anxiety (including increased heart rate, avoidance, secretion of stress hormones, etc. in humans). Recent research has implicated the hippocampus in regulating mood. Furthermore, these studies have revealed altering brain activity in the ventral part of the hippocampus that can reduce anxiety. Besides, the hippocampus sends signals to other areas of the brain—the amygdala and the hypothalamus —that play a key role in controlling anxiety-related behaviours.

While the study was simply carried out in mice, scientists believe anxiety cells exist in the same area of the human brain as witnessed in their brain. By finding these new cells involved in anxiety, there is fresh hope for better and improved treatment strategies. There is a need to learn if these cells are molecularly different from other types of brain cells. According to Hen, this study also opens up the possibility of producing new drugs if a specific receptor on the cells is found that distinguishes them from their neighbors.

Anxiety can be treated with timely help

Treating chronic and severe anxiety is a lifelong journey that requires consistent attention. Through awareness and treatment, individuals with anxiety disorders can lead happy, healthy and productive lives free of excessive worry and fear. For those dealing with an anxiety disorder, daily life can be a huge struggle.

Fortunately, anxiety disorders, like other psychiatric disorders, are treatable. There are many state-of-the-art anxiety disorder treatment centers for treating anxiety disorders, such as GAD, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The sooner help is found, the faster is recovery from anxiety disorders. To know more about the anxiety treatment options in your area, call our 24/7 hour anxiety helpline 866-971-7951 or chat online with our counsellors.