There are good reasons to be anxious: fear of being eaten by wolves, fear of being eaten by lions, fear of being eaten by jaguars… ok, it’s mostly a “fear of being eaten” thing. That anxiety is an evolutionary advantage, resulting in increased awareness and readiness to fight or flee. But emotional stress is supposed to be a fleeting thing, and for many people, it is overstaying its welcome. They are just left with a feeling of dread in situations where it’s strongly frowned upon to hulk out or run away screaming: like meetings, weddings, or congressional hearings.
In an attempt to further understand anxiety disorder, researchers at the University of California San Francisco (oh that’s fun to say, Franciscooooo) and Columbia University Medical Center observed mice brains in real time using a labeled calcium ion, which is used in nerve firing. They discovered a region of cells in the hippocampus that appear to control anxiety levels. These regions would activate when the mice were exposed to an open environment or elevated mazes—scenarios that induce severe anxiety in rodents—which would then activate other regions of the brain that induce avoidance behaviors. Taking it one step further, the researchers used implanted fiber optic cables to control neuron firing with light beams, which is totally a thing we can do. By inhibiting these neurons, the team could encourage the mice to be less cautious in the same stressful situations.
Up until now, we have been treating anxiety with a scattershot approach, targeting the final results of the signaling cascade. This, however, results in side effects for cognitive function and mood—it’s like punishing an employee who is taking too many breaks by chaining everyone to their desk. It technically works, but doesn’t make for a very happy office. These findings can hopefully lead to more targeted therapies aimed at the few dysfunctional cells that leave the rest of the brain alone, free to focus on work, relationships, or that damn song it can’t stop singing to itself.
It was only a kiss, how did it end up like this?
YOU MUST SHARE MY PAIN.