Anxiety signals found in the brain despite safe surroundings


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Imagine you are in a meadow picking flowers. You know some flowers are safe while others have a bee that will sting you. How would you react to this environment, and more importantly, how would your brain react? This is the scene in a virtual reality environment used by researchers to understand the impact anxiety has on the brain and how brain regions interact with each other to shape behavior.

“These results tell us that anxiety disorders can be more than a lack of awareness of the environment or ignorance of safety, but rather that individuals suffering from an anxiety disorder cannot control their emotions and behavior even if they wanted to,” said Benjamin Suarez. Jimenez, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Del Monte Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Rochester and first author of the study published in Communication Biology. “Patients with an anxiety disorder could rationally say – I’m in a safe room – but we found that their brain behaved as if it were not.”

Sees anxiety in the brain

Using fMRI, the researchers observed the brain activity of volunteers with general and social anxiety while navigating a virtual reality game of picking flowers. Half of the meadow had flowers without bees, the other half had flowers with bees that would sting them – as simulated by a gentle electrical stimulation of the hand. Researchers found that all study participants could distinguish between the safe and dangerous areas, however, brain scans revealed that volunteers with anxiety had increased insula activation and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex activation – indicating that their brain associated a known safe area for danger or threat.

“It’s the first time we’ve looked at discrimination learning this way. We know what areas of the brain we need to look at, but it’s the first time we’re showing this activity concert in such a complex ‘real-world-like’ environment,” Suarez said. Jimenez. “These results point to the need for treatments that focus on helping patients regain control of their bodies.”

The brain differences were the only differences seen in these patients. For example, sweating responses, a proxy for anxiety, which was also measured, revealed no clear differences.

Suarez-Jimenez’s research

Understanding the neural mechanisms by which the brain learns about the environment is the focus of Suarez-Jimenez’s research, particularly how the brain predicts what is threatening and what is safe. He uses virtual reality environments to examine neural signatures of anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His goal is to understand how people build cards in the brain based on experience and what role these cards play in the psychopathologies of stress and anxiety.

Extend research to other disorders

“For the next steps in this recent research, we still need to clarify whether what we found in the brains of these patients is also the case in other disorders, such as PTSD. Understanding differences and similarities across disorders characterized by deficiencies in behavioral regulation and emotions in a safe environment, can help us create better personal treatment options. ”

First brain marker for an anxiety disorder discovered

More information:
Benjamin Suarez-Jimenez et al., Location-dependent threat and associated neural abnormalities in clinical anxiety, Communication Biology (2021). DOI: 10.1038 / s42003-021-02775-x

Provided by the University of Rochester Medical Center

Citation: Anxiety signals found in the brain despite safe environment (2021, November 12) retrieved November 13, 2021 from

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