Researchers selectively control anxiety pathways in the brain
A new study sheds light--both literally and figuratively--on the intricate brain cell connections responsible for anxiety. Scientists at Stanford University recently used light to activate mouse neurons and precisely identify neural circuits that increase or decrease anxiety-related behaviors. Pinpointing the origin of anxiety brings psychiatric professionals closer to understanding anxiety disorders, the most common class of psychiatric disease.
A research team led by Karl Deisseroth, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and bioengineering, identified two key pathways in the brain: one which promotes anxiety, and one which alleviates anxiety.
The pathways are in a brain region called the amygdala. Prior research suggests the amygdala plays a role in anxiety, but earlier studies used widespread modifications of the amygdala, through drugs or physical disruption of the brain region, to study the way in which it affects anxiety. This new work, published in this week's Nature, uses a tool called optogenetics--developed by Deisseroth and recently named Method of the Year by Nature Methods--to specifically tease out which pathways contribute to anxiety.
Optogenetics combines genetics and optical science to selectively manipulate the way a neuron fires in the brain. Neurons are electrically excitable cells that convey information through electrical and chemical signaling.
Directed genetic manipulations cause specific neurons to assemble a light-activated protein normally found in algae and bacteria. When triggered by certain wavelengths of light, these proteins allow researchers to increase or decrease neuronal activity in the brain and observe the effects on rodent models in an experiment.
Using optogenetic manipulation of various amygdala pathways, Deisseroth and colleagues examined how mouse behavior was affected. Since mice display anxiety-related behaviors in open spaces, they measured changes in anxiety by analyzing how much time mice spent exploring the center of an open field, or exploring the length of a platform without walls.
While optogenetics has been used to study amygdala function in behaviorally-conditioned fear, this is the first time it has been used to study anxiety. "Fear and anxiety are different," Deisseroth explained. "Fear is a response to an immediate threat, but anxiety is a heightened state of apprehension with no immediate threat. They share the same outputs, for example physical manifestations such as increased heart rate, but their controls are very different."
Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent among all psychiatric diseases, and include diseases such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobias. Anxiety also contributes to other major psychiatric disorders such as depression and substance abuse.
"Now that we know that these cell projections [in the amygdala] exist, we can first use this knowledge to understand anxiety more than we do now," Deisseroth noted.
Deisseroth has previously used optogenetics to study deep brain stimulation in Parkinson's disease. This research was detailed last year in the journal Science and reported online by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
"Deep brain stimulation is increasingly being considered for psychiatric disorders, so after studying Parkinson's disease, we started building towards research on psychiatric disorders," Deisseroth commented. Next he wants to use these tools to study depression and autism spectrum disorders.
Source: National Science Foundation
- Brain scans show distinctive patterns in people with generalized anxiety disorder in Stanford studyMon, 7 Dec 2009, 18:25:15 EST
- Brain chemical reduces anxiety, increases survival of new cellsTue, 12 May 2009, 17:30:09 EDT
- Functional connection between hippocampus and cortex modulates anxietyWed, 27 Jan 2010, 14:50:04 EST
- Heavy drinking rewires brain, increasing susceptibility to anxiety problemsSun, 2 Sep 2012, 21:31:43 EDT
- Inherited brain activity predicts childhood risk for anxietyWed, 11 Aug 2010, 13:37:42 EDT
Articles on the same topic
- Stanford scientists discover anti-anxiety circuit in brain region considered the seat of fearWed, 9 Mar 2011, 14:37:30 EST
- Researchers selectively control anxiety pathways in the brainfrom Science CentricThu, 10 Mar 2011, 13:30:29 EST
- Stanford scientists discover anti-anxiety circuit in brain region considered the seat of fearfrom Science CentricThu, 10 Mar 2011, 12:50:16 EST
- Researchers selectively control anxiety pathways in the brainfrom Science BlogWed, 9 Mar 2011, 16:20:29 EST
- Scientists discover anti-anxiety circuit in brain region considered the seat of fearfrom Science DailyWed, 9 Mar 2011, 14:30:56 EST
- Scientists discover anti-anxiety circuit in brain region considered the seat of fearfrom PhysorgWed, 9 Mar 2011, 14:30:24 EST
Latest Science NewsletterGet the latest and most popular science news articles of the week in your Inbox! It's free!
Learn more about
Check out our next project, Biology.Net
From other science news sites
Popular science news articles
- Environment drives genetics in 'Evolution Canyon'; discovery sheds light on climate change
- Noble gas molecule discovered in space
- Scientists discover double meaning in genetic code
- Surprise: Duck-billed dinosaurs had fleshy 'cocks comb'
- With new study, aquatic comb jelly floats into new evolutionary position