Where Anxiety Disorders are Found in the Brain

anxiety disorders

260 million people worldwide deal with an anxiety disorder, according to the World Health Organization. Although anxiety disorders are becoming more common and growing, about 18% of the population have anxiety.

In 2016, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an economist, showed that anxiety disorders have doubled over the last eight years.

There are several anxiety disorders: social anxiety, panic disorder, general anxiety disorder, and numerous phobias.

Scientists are still not exactly sure what causes anxiety. The therapies and pharmaceuticals that are offered aren’t very effective.

Researchers believe it is caused by a combination of environmental factors, genes, and brain changes over time.

Anxiety seems to run in families, and more recently, the epigenetic markers for anxiety have been discovered.

Epigenetics is the method when genes are set to become either suppressed or expressed.

A study discovered that epigenetic changes connected with anxiety that happened in victims of the holocaust were handed down to their children.

Up until now, researchers knew that weakened brain circuits were the cause of anxiety disorders. They just weren’t sure of which ones.

Recently, scientists have identified the brain circuits connected to anxiety in mice.

Published in the journal of Neuron, it was a cooperation of researchers from Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center and UC-San Francisco. It was led by the assistant professor of psychiatry at UCSF, Mazen Kheirbek, Ph.D.

Scientists at Columbia University and UCSF and discovered “anxiety cells” in mice brains. “Anxiety cells” is where you will find where emotion is kept.

Kheirbek and associates began their hunt in the hippocampus, the brain area correlated with anxiety. The hippocampus regulates memory and emotion.

Scientists put the mice in high stressful conditions as they used tiny microscopes in the rodents’ brains.

Mice are highly stressed in open spaces where they are venerable to being found by predators.

anxiety disorders

The researchers placed the mice inside mazes where some options lead to wide-open spaces.

Scientists discovered that these specific brain cells became overactive when the mouse went into the open areas that provoked anxiety.

The reason scientists named them “anxiety cells” is because the neurons only turn on when they are in scary situations.

Though this proved that these brain cells are related to anxiety, it did not demonstrate that the feeling came from the same area.

Kheirbek and associates, to prove this tried the technique named optogenetics, where researchers can control neural activity using beams of light.

When the researchers increased the activity in the neurons, the anxiety in the mice went up, and when they decreased the activity, the anxiety went down.

Optogenetics is a procedure that presents genetic material called opsin into brain cells for protein expression and uses light-emitting devices that allows it to activate.

Although researchers determined that these neurons are most likely just a part of an extended path by which the mice learn about the information that is anxiety related.

Concerning the memory and smell circuits, for example, may remind a mouse that a particular smell from the past, like urine from a cat, could lead into a dangerous setting, such as almost being eaten.

Hence, these neurons found in the hippocampus could be where the anxiety stems. However, various other circuits in the brain work in sync with it to assist the mice in traversing the environment.

The goal is to invent healthier anxiety medications. Current treatments that are offered today can have significant side effects.

Researchers one day would like to see a treatment that can quickly turn off anxiety.

The primary constraint of the study was that those “anxiety cells” were in mice, not in humans.

Nevertheless, scientists are optimistic that humans have them, with the likelihood of future studies proving this.

panic attack



Dean Mathers

Editor and Chief of Mind Debris Magazine

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