While we all struggle from conventional life anxieties and stresses from time to time a true anxiety disorder can be a determining factor in a lower quality of life at best and entirely crippling at worst. An anxiety problem happens to be quite common in the US. How big of a problem exactly? The National Institute of Mental Health reports that around 40 million Americans, or 18% of the population over the age of 18, suffers from a condition related to anxiety.
So it’s always a good thing to here that scientists are at work successfully finding new potential treatment targets. It turns out that scientists have discovered a new area of the brain that could promote an anxiety response. What’s interesting about this finding is that this specific area was previously thought to dampen the anxiety response in individuals.
The findings, published in the journal Cell, specifically focus on the brain area related to the circuitry responsible for connecting the lateral septum to other brain structures. The scientists’ aim is to further understand how the brain processes anxiety in order to one day develop new anxiety medications that can treat this disorder more effectively than what we have on the market today. There are various modern treatment options for anxiety disorders which include (but are not limited to) SSRI’s, benzodiazepines, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), but even in this day and age there are many shortcomings to the available treatment options.
These scientists knew that the lateral septum was activated during anxiety states when experimenting with mice. What they didn’t know was whether this brain area was promoting anxiety or keeping a lid on it and this is exactly what they were out to determine. Through a process called optogenetics the researchers found that the lateral septum was in fact causing anxiety states in mice and that this state persisted even after the activation of this brain area.
The findings were confusing because these brain cells are inhibitory meaning that they “hold back” activity (in this case anxiety) but alas these are scientists and so they found the root of the problem. What they found is that the lateral septum brain cells (inhibitory) actually inhibit neurons to which they are connected to, in this case those of the hypothalamus, which also happen to be inhibitory. The hypothalamus is also connected to the paraventricular nucleus which is responsible for the release of a major stress hormone known as cortisol.
Evidently, when you inhibit and inhibitor you essentially cancel out the inhibitory state. These researchers concluded that since the lateral septum was inhibiting the hypothalamus the hypothalamus could not efficiently keep a lid on the cortisol (stress hormone) produced by the paraventricular nucleus. This is great finding because it is another step in the way of advancing anxiety based medications.
Current drug treatments for anxiety such as SSRI’s (drugs also used to treat depression ex. Zoloft) and benzodiazepines (Xanax) have many pitfalls, namely side effects. SSRI’s only work effectively for a small portion of the population and benzo’s happen to be some of the most highly addictive pills on this planet. What’s even worse is that these drugs have the potential to produce withdrawal upon discontinuation (acute withdrawal) and in the case of benzo’s it can be lethal. There is even a chance that individuals will experience a form of long lasting withdrawal known as post acute withdrawal syndrome with side effects much like the ones an individual was trying to treat in the first place (anxiety, depression, anhedonia, panic attacks, OCD, insomnia, etc.).
If scientists can get a better understanding of what makes anxiety tick through research such as this then sufferers will someday be able to cope with the disorder without having to worry about excessive side effects and potential withdrawal. We are still very far from getting there but with more knowledge we can certainly reach a place where all sufferers of mental illness can raise the quality of their lives.