Neuroscientists just pinpointed the physical source of anxiety in our brains — and it could lead to a breakthrough treatment.
Using mice. And light rays.
Experiments have located so-called “anxiety cells” located in the hippocampus of mice brains. Using a ray of light, researchers found they could literally turn down the level of anxiety in these cells.
“This is exciting because it represents a direct, rapid pathway in the brain that lets animals respond to anxiety-provoking places without needing to go through higher-order brain regions,” said Mazen Kheirbek, assistant professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco, and a lead investigator on the joint study conducted by UCSF and Columbia University.
Nearly 1 in 5 Americans has experienced an anxiety disorder.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 31% of U.S. adults will experience an anxiety disorder in at some point in their lives.
And celebrities are not immune either. Public figures like Kristen Bell, Lady Gaga, and journalist Dan Harris have shared their own difficulties in navigating a mental illness that can seem invisible to everyone else.
The most common treatments typically involve a combination of therapy and medications. Antidepressents, or SSRI drugs, have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, with critics arguing they are often over-prescribed and in less severe cases may even mask symptoms that could be otherwise treated through different approaches.
A ray of hope. Seriously.
That’s what makes this new study so compelling. If there’s an alternative approach to treating anxiety that is both more precise and less invasive, it could be a legitimate breakthrough approach to treating anxiety disorders.
Using rays of light, the researchers were able to track the brain activity in freely moving mice, getting real-time feedback about whether the “anxiety neurons” in their brains were activated during stressful situations:
“They found that suppressing the anxiety neuron pathway made animals more comfortable spending time in environments that usually frighten them, while stimulating the same neural connections made mice behave with anxiety even in safely enclosed spaces.”
“Now that we’ve found these cells in the hippocampus, it opens up new areas for exploring treatment ideas that we didn’t know existed before,” said Jessica Jimenez, lead author of the joint study.
There’s still a lot more work to be done.
Even though the study offers a ton of potential, experiments on mice don’t always perfectly translate to trials on humans.
Even though he calls the initial results “tremendous progress,” NIMH director Joshua Gordon said we’re still far from a solution. “You can think of this paper as one brick in a big wall,” he told NPR.
Still, there’s no denying the promise and potential for the millions of people living with anxiety disorders and the countless others affected by such challenges.