By Elton Gomes
In a boost to understanding how the human brain works, scientists have identified “anxiety cells” in the hippocampus. The cells are known to regulate anxious behaviour and can be controlled by a beam of light. The development is likely positive news to people suffering from anxiety disorders, as it could lead to the creation of new drugs, that could better control these cells, regulating anxious behaviour.
The research was initiated by a team of scientists from University of California, San Francisco, and was published in the journal titled Neuron.
Experiments involving the live imaging of mice brains, were used in the study. The experiments revealed that “neurons in the hippocampus that respond strongly when mice wander into exposed regions of an elevated maze or open field.” These areas are known to trigger a strong sense of anxiety in rodents.
Mazen Kheirbek, one of the neuroscientists from the University of California, said, “We wanted to understand where the emotional information that goes into the feeling of anxiety is encoded within the brain,” ScienceAlert reported.
Here’s what happened
The team from the University of California employed a technique known as calcium imaging. Miniature microscopes were inserted into the brains of mice. The microscopes recorded the activity of cells in the rodents’ hippocampus, as they scurried around custom-built enclosures. The team even built the enclosures, including paths that led to open spaces and elevated platforms, which were known to induce anxiety in mice.
When the mice reached an open space, the researchers noted that cells in the ventral CA1—a part of the hippocampus—fired up. Moreover, as per the ScienceAlert report, “the more anxious the mice behaved, the greater the neuron activity became.”
The scientists traced the output of these cells to the hypothalamus—a region of the brain regulating hormones that control emotions. These cells in the hippocampus communicate with the hypothalamus, another part of the brain, and inform the mice about avoiding a potentially dangerous situation.
The researchers made an inference—because a similar regulation process functions in humans—the anxiety neurones could be part of human biology as well.
Rene Hen, a senior researcher of the study, explained why these cells are known as anxiety cells: “We call these anxiety cells because they only fire when the animals are in places that are innately frightening to them.”
Now that these “anxiety cells” have been traced to the hippocampus, new ideas for treatment can be explored. Jessica Jimenez, from Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons, said, “Now that we’ve found these cells in the hippocampus, it opens up new areas for exploring treatment ideas that we didn’t know existed before,” ScienceAlert reported. In addition, the new discovery might help scientists better understand anxiety disorders, and it might pave the way for better therapies for anxiety-related issues.
Why is this important?
According to a report by the World Health Organisation, “38 million Indians suffer from anxiety disorders.” It was also reported that at least 7.5% of Indians suffer from major or minor mental disorders, for which expert intervention is required. As news of a top cop committing suicide allegedly due to depression took everyone by surprise, a healthy and viable solutions for those suffering from mental health problems becomes highly important.
Anxiety disorders and mental illnesses still appear to have a negative connotation in India. This is something that must change. Many individuals suffering from psychological disorders hesitate to seek help or even discuss their condition publicly, for fear of being judged “mad”. If left untreated, symptoms of mental illnesses can gradually take over an individual. A society that is more compassionate and aware of the challenges faced by individuals suffering from such disorders, may help save many lives.
More importantly, the brain is an organ that scientists have yet to understand completely. Any study gathering information on the human brain will be crucial, not only for treating psychological disorders, but, also for monitoring other important functions.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius.
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