Better treatments for anxiety may be on the horizon thanks to new research from the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. From experiments involving mice, scientists think they isolated a group of specialized brain cells that directly control the fight-or-flight response.
By carefully monitoring mice as they moved about in different environments, the researchers noticed a particular cluster of brain cells became more active when the creatures entered a seemingly more perilous situation, such as an open area where they think a predator might lurk. The cells appeared to turn on whenever the mice were more anxious than normal.
Rene Hen, the study’s lead author, named the neurons “anxiety cells” as their only function seems to relate to the animal’s feelings of fear or anxiousness. When these cells get excited, the brain triggers behaviors often associated with anxiety.
“We call these anxiety cells because they only fire when the animals are in places that are innately frightening to them,” said Hen, as cited by Economic Times.
In experiments, the mice avoided a potentially hazardous zone by running to a place appearing much safer. The researchers conclude the dedicated anxiety cells allow for a quicker, more direct response to danger than having to first think about what to do and possibly lose an opportunity to escape.
Using the information obtained from the study, new anxiety treatments could be developed based on the activity of these specialized brain cells. The anxiety cells reside in the hippocampus region of the brain, which also controls navigation and memory functions.
Nearly 40 million adult Americans suffer from anxiety, according to a Tech Times report. This is twice as many patients than a decade ago. While anxiety cells seem to play a role in the disorder, scientists are still uncertain why it occurs in some people but not others.
While there are numerous treatments for anxiety, many have negative consequences. One very commonly prescribed drug known as benzodiazepine has multiple side-effects, can be addictive, and patients often build a tolerance for it.
In theory, if a treatment could silence these cells, a person with anxiety issues in everyday situations may be able to feel more comfortable and relaxed, leading to a much-desired normal life. Published in the journal Neuron, the study is a potential breakthrough for people with emotional disorders.
However, more research is needed, and it may be a long time before a safe and possibly more reliable treatment is available on the market. Until then, patients and doctors will need to rely on more traditional methods like medication and therapy.