Neuroscientists at the University of California, San Francisco and Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center have discovered anxiety brain cells in mice that can be turned on or off. This could lead to new avenues for treating anxiety disorders in people. The findings are published in the latest issue of the journal Neuron.
“Anxiety cells” in mice are triggered by stressful and frightening situations
The researchers inserted miniature microscopes into the brains of lab mice to record cell activity in the hippocampus – an area of the brain that regulates learning, memories, and emotions. They then placed the mice in stressful and frightening situations – open areas where they’d typically be exposed to predators as well as elevated platforms – to observe which cells fired.
Next, the researchers used a technique called optogenetics (beams of light used to control neuron activity) to regulate those cells by turning them up and down. When the researchers turned down the cells, the mice spent more time on the elevated platforms and away from protective walls, demonstrating less anxious behavior. But when they stimulated the cells, the mice exhibited more anxiety-ridden behaviors, even when in a safe space. There is still much to do to before using the same techniques to combat anxiety in humans, however, it does point to possible treatments down the road. “If we can learn enough, we can develop the tools to turn on and off the key players that regulate anxiety in people,” said Joshua Gordon, director of the NIMH, which helped fund this study.
Anxiety disorders are hardware problems in the human brain
It’s important to point out that anxiety disorders are often misclassified as personal shortcomings, when they are actually hardware problems in the brain. This mouse study demonstrates that overactive brain cells lead to anxiety. Your anxious behavior, in other words, is not a sign that you’re not strong, resilient, or smart enough to beat it.
Ease your anxiety by reprogramming your brain
There are steps you can take right now to ease your anxiety, specifically by working to reprogram your brain.
- Get a handle on your heart rate variability in two straightforward steps. Step one – recognize your bodily sensations when your flight-or-fight response is triggered. Step two – learn how to control your flight-or-fight response, so you can consciously curb it and remain calm. HeartMath is an exceptional HRV unit. Learn more about HRV training here.
- Seek out a cognitive behavioral therapist to help you reframe your thoughts and, by extension, your actions. Or find a therapist who specializes in EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), which can be an effective way to retrain your nervous system responses.
- You can also try neurofeedback with a skilled professional, which allows you to work with your nervous system responses through your own brainwaves.
- For more in-depth information on how to restore your brain’s hardware and combat anxiety, check out Dave’s newest book, Head Strong.