LivingIdentify 'anxiety cells' in the brain

Identify 'anxiety cells' in the brain

A team of neuroscientists from the Irving Medical Center of Columbia University and the University of California, San Francisco (USA) has managed to identify the ‘anxiety cells’ located in the hippocampus of the brain , being able not only to regulate anxiety and the behavior associated with this, but to control them by light (optogrnetics), at least in mice.

The findings, so far demonstrated in experiments with laboratory mice, could offer a ray of hope for millions of people around the world who experience anxiety disorders such as social phobia or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), by generating new drugs that They silence this restlessness by controlling certain neurons.

“We wanted to understand where the emotional information involved in the feeling of anxiety is encoded in the brain,” says neuroscientist Mazen Kheirbek, co-author of the work.

To find out, the team used a technique called calcium imaging, inserting miniature microscopes into the brains of laboratory mice to record the activity of cells in the hippocampus as the animals made their way around a cage path. However, the cage in the experiment was no ordinary cage. The scientists built special mazes where some paths led to open spaces and elevated platforms, exposed environments that induce anxiety in mice, due to increasing vulnerability to predators.

Away from the safety of the walls, something happened in the brains of the mice: the more anxious the mice behaved, the greater the activity of neurons in a part of the hippocampus called ventral CA1 (vCA1).

“We call them anxiety cells because they are only activated when animals are in places that cause them innate fear,” explains Rene Hen, co-author of the work.

The output of these cells can be traced back to the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that, among other things,
regulates hormones that control emotions.

Because this same regulatory process operates in people, the researchers hypothesize that anxiety neurons could also be part of human biology.

“Now that we have found these cells in the hippocampus, it opens up new areas for us to explore treatment ideas that we did not know existed before, ” says Jessica Jiménez, co-author of the study.

Using a technique called optogenetics that made cells glow in the vCA1 region, the scientists were able to effectively silence anxiety cells and generate safe, jitter-free activity in the mice.

“We found that they became less anxious. In fact, they used to want to explore the open arms of the maze much more,” says Kheirbek.

By changing the light settings, the researchers were also able to improve the activity of anxiety cells, causing the animals to shiver even when safely installed in a closed, walled environment.

The next step will be to find out if the same control switch in mice is the one that regulates anxiety in humans, and based on what we know about brain similarities to mice, this seems plausible.

Reference: Anxiety Cells in a Hippocampal-Hypothalamic Circuit. Neuron 2018. DOI: DOI:

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