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"Anxiety Cells" Discovery Furthers Our Understanding of the Disease

8 minute read

Chronic anxiety is a troubling disorder that affects your brain. This disease can manifest itself in your thoughts as well as your brain chemistry, making it a threat to both your mental and physical health.

An estimated 32 percent of adults have an anxiety disorder. This is about 6.8 million people in the U.S alone and only a small percentage of these are receiving treatment.

It is believed that the lack of effective treatments plays a part in why so few are getting help.

Anxiety and Your Brain

Even when you are not feeling anxious, the disorder can cause physical symptoms. People often mistake these symptoms for other illnesses, and anxiety goes undetected and untreated.

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The dangerous part of anxiety is that, when left untreated, your brain undergoes serious chemical changes and can become damaged permanently. Anxiety also has a way of altering how you react to everyday situations, then reinforces itself based on your new behaviors.

There is evidence to support that genetics and the environment play a role in the development of anxiety disorders. Some people are born with difficulties producing certain neurotransmitters that control mood.

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Even if anxiety is part of your genetic makeup, it is still possible to control. Assuming of course, you are able to identify it in the first place.

A worried senior woman

Anxiety is known as “The Great Imitator” for good reason. The disease produces symptoms that mirror other diseases.

It can change the way you think, the way you perceive situations, and alter your hormones. The truly amazing fact about anxiety is that it often manifests symptoms that are not really there at all.

Fighting anxiety is a true battle involving your mental and physical strength.

The list below of common anxiety symptoms does not necessarily indicate that you have the disorder. If you are suffering from an anxiety disorder, chances are you will experience at least half of these regularly.

♦ Breathing difficulties

♦ Chest pain

♦ Concentration problems

♦ Difficulty speaking

♦ Digestion issues

♦ Fear

♦ Feeling overwhelmed

♦ Headaches

♦ Heart palpitations

♦ Insomnia

♦ Low energy or fatigue

♦ Muscle tension

♦ Nervousness

♦ Shallow breathing

♦ Sweating

A woman cannot sleep because of stress

The known neurotransmitters linked to anxiety are serotonin, GABA, and norepinephrine. Your brain responds directly to the presence of these chemicals, specifically when they are out of balance.

Too little serotonin in your brain causes anxiety. The imbalance of these chemicals can result from life experiences as well as genetics and can be seen in patients diagnosed with anxiety.

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Anxiety manifests as physical and mental symptoms, and you may suffer from one or both. You can experience worry all day long without having a single physical symptom, or you can experience panic attacks and a racing heartbeat without consciously being aware that you are worrying.

Both outcomes are the result of different parts of the brain being activated. Worrisome thoughts are shown to activate the left brain, and physical symptoms activate the right half of the brain.

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Hormones in your body also affect anxiety because they have the ability to alter brain chemistry as well as neurotransmitter production and balance. The main hormones that can impact your brain and contribute to anxiety include:

Adrenaline: This is released during the fight-or-flight response and is responsible for the accelerated heartbeat and muscle tension. Long term exposure to this hormone can cause anxiety and can damage your ability to control its release. This contributes to prolonged anxiety symptoms and stress to your body.

Thyroid hormone: This regulates the levels of serotonin, GABA, and norepinephrine produced in your body. If you have any health issues concerning your thyroid, then your risk for developing anxiety could dramatically increase.

Thyroid problems illustrated

Long-term anxiety can damage the brain in such a way that causes anxiety to continue. When left untreated, your prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, orbitofrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate begin to decrease in size.

The longer this goes untreated, the more damage is done to the brain, weakening these sections. These changes not only affect the symptoms your experience, but they can also create anxious thoughts.

The problem is that your brain feels these thoughts are natural, which creates and contributes to negative thinking. Once this point has been reached, it may be difficult to return your brain to a regular and healthy way of thinking.

Anxiety disorders, therefore, need to be understood at a biological level if we are to prevent this from happening.

Panic attacks are also strongly associated with anxiety disorders, and it is thought that their occurrence is directly related to the health of the brain.

Research shows that individuals with panic attacks have an overactive amygdala. This area of the brain is associated with the brain’s control, or lack thereof, over panic attacks.

Discovering a New “Anxiety Cell”

Since parts of the brain have been identified as being linked to anxiety, research has worked at attempting to identify all possible links. The idea being that finding the causes of anxiety can lead to more specific and effective therapy.

A recent study on mice found that there are specialized cells that control anxiety levels.

The cells were discovered in the hippocampus, which is known to be involved in navigation, memory, and anxiety.

A scientist looking into microscope

Knowing that mice are fearful of open spaces, the research team placed mice in a maze. Some areas of the maze led to open spaces.

The team monitored and recorded the activity of the mice’s brain cells within the hippocampus. They discovered that these cells became overly active anytime the mice went into an area that elicited anxiety.

Using this information and a technique known as optogenetics, the team was able to control the activity of these cells. When the cells were less active, the mice were less anxious, and they were more inclined to explore the open areas.

While these hippocampal cells are definitely linked to anxiety, it is thought that they are part of an extended circuit. The results also cannot be conclusively linked to how humans experience anxiety, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

The Bottom Line

If we are better able to understand the mechanisms that are linked with anxiety, we can develop more effective treatments to help solve the problem. Anxiety disorders are prevalent in the United States and cause a great deal of interference to daily living.

While some fear is a good thing, anxiety disorders can be debilitating. If there are cells we can control within our brains, we can dial down our fight-or-flight response to when it truly is necessary.

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