Researchers find controllable “anxiety cells” in the brain


Source: Wellcome Images

Researchers say they have found unique brain cells responsible for controlling anxiety in mice. The discovery of these “anxiety cells” could signify a massive change in how anxiety is understood and treated if similar cells are found in our brains.

“The therapies we have now have significant drawbacks,” said Mazen Kheirbek, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco and an author of the study. “This is another target that we can try to move the field forward for finding new therapies.”

Kheirbek says the study was motivated by a desire to understand “where the emotional information that goes into the feeling of anxiety is encoded within the brain.”

Anxiety is typically thought of as a negative feeling or experience, but there is evidence indicating some amounts of anxiety are actually healthy. Anxiety keeps us aware of dangerous situations and stay alert when at higher risk for harm. The problem is when anxiety persists or appears without the presence of danger or identifiable stressors.

To study the brain cells affected by anxiety, the researchers implanted miniature microscopes into the brains of mice. This allowed them to monitor the cells in the brains of the mice in real-time as they were exposed to stressful situations.

The researchers say that a number of cells were uniquely responsible for responding to stress.

“We call these anxiety cells because they only fire when the animals are in places that are innately frightening to them,” one of the study’s senior researchers, Rene Hen, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at CUIMC, said in a statement. “For a mouse, that’s an open area where they’re more exposed to predators, or an elevated platform.”

Using a technique called optogenetics, the team found they were able to “turn up or turn down” these specific cells, making them more or less sensitive to stimuli.

“When the cells were silenced, the mice spent more time wandering onto elevated platforms and away from protective walls,” the UCSF news center reported. “When the cells were stimulated, the mice exhibited more anxiety-behaviors even when they were in ‘safe’ surroundings.”

Mice are often used in early experiments because their physiology closely resembles that of humans, but that doesn’t make them an exact match. Many studies done on mice cannot be replicated in people. As such, it is hard to tell just how big of a discovery these “anxiety cells” are.

If the researchers are able to replicate the study and find “anxiety cells” in people, it would provide the clearest target for future treatments yet. It may even suggest anxiety could eventually be treated by monitoring and stimulating these cells as necessary.

Joshua Gordon, director of the NIMH, which helped fund this study, said in an interview with NPR, that the study is just “one brick in a big wall” of research necessary.

“If we can learn enough,” Gordon said, “we can develop the tools to turn on and off the key players that regulate anxiety in people.”

Tags: , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply