Nav: Home

How fear transforms into anxiety

July 09, 2020

A deadly coronavirus pandemic, economic instability and civil unrest menace the mental well-being of millions. Understanding how, in vulnerable people, fear from such frightening events evolves into lifelong anxiety, is critical for healing.

A University of New Mexico research team led by Elaine L. Bearer, MD, PhD, the Harvey Family Professor in Pathology, and graduate student Taylor W. Uselman has identified for the first time brain-wide neural correlates of the transition from fear to anxiety.

"Until now, psychiatrists had little information about what goes on in the brain after a fearful experience, and why some people don't easily recover and remain anxious, for even as long as the rest of their lives," Bearer says.

Life-threatening fear frequently leads to post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). The goal is to shed light on the brain's response to fear and why, in some cases, it can lead to prolonged anxiety states like PTSD.

While not feasible in human subjects, fear can be provoked in rodents by exposure to a scary smell, such as a product commonly used to protect our barbecues from mouse nesting. This smell simulates a predator odor and scares mice away.

The UNM team used this trick to witness how the brain responds to scary events and discover how brain activity evolves from a scary feeling to anxiety.

In a paper published this week in the journal NeuroImage, they report a correlation of behavior with brain activity by watching behavior and capturing magnetic resonance images before, during and after exposure to non-scary and scary smells.

They created vulnerability to anxiety by manipulating the serotonin transporter (SERT), which is the major target of psychoactive drugs, like cocaine, and antidepressants, like Prozac. Deletion of the SERT gene (SERT-KO) produces vulnerability to anxiety, and thus provides a unique model to learn how frightening experiences morph into anxiety.

The UNM researchers compared behavior and brain activity in normal versus SERT-KO to identify the neural correlates of anxiety - those regions active in anxious SERT-KOs and not in normal subjects.

To highlight active neurons, they used manganese, a non-toxic ion that lights up active neurons in magnetic resonance images. Computational analyses of these brain-wide images yielded maps of activity throughout the brain before, immediately and long after brief exposure to the scary smell.

They identified differences in neural activity in 45 sub-regions throughout the brain. Some regions were activated by the scary smell, and some only came on later. Vulnerability to anxiety correlated with much more activity in many more regions.

The function of some of these regions, including the amygdala and hypothalamus, is at least partly understood, but others, such as the reward circuitry, were not previously known to be involved in anxiety.

In anxiety, the coordination between regions was altered, which may represent a brain-wide signature of anxiety, or signify a dis-coordination between brain regions, which is often experienced when we are frightened or anxious.

"We now know that brain activity in anxiety is not the same as in an acute fear response," Bearer says. "With anxiety, neural activity is elevated across many specific regions of the brain, and normal coordination between regions is lost."

What does this mean in the time of COVID? The time lag for resilient or anxious outcomes suggests that early containment of fearful responses to surges in cases, protests and economic recession may reduce the likelihood of progression to anxiety.

The involvement of serotonin also suggests pharmacologic targets that could help in reducing the likelihood of anxiety. Meditation, music, poetry, exercise and other stress-reducing activities that engage the reward circuitry will also likely help. Early interventions will have lasting benefits.
-end-


University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center

Related Brain Activity Articles:

What is your attitude towards a humanoid robot? Your brain activity can tell us!
Researchers at IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Italy found that people's bias towards robots, that is, attributing them intentionality or considering them as 'mindless things', can be correlated with distinct brain activity patterns.
Using personal frequency to control brain activity
Individual frequency can be used to specifically influence certain areas of the brain and thus the abilities processed in them - solely by electrical stimulation on the scalp, without any surgical intervention.
Rats' brain activity reveals their alcohol preference
The brain's response to alcohol varies based on individual preferences, according to new research in rats published in eNeuro.
Studies of brain activity aren't as useful as scientists thought
Hundreds of published studies over the last decade have claimed it's possible to predict an individual's patterns of thoughts and feelings by scanning their brain in an MRI machine as they perform some mental tasks.
A child's brain activity reveals their memory ability
A child's unique brain activity reveals how good their memories are, according to research recently published in JNeurosci.
How dopamine drives brain activity
Using a specialized magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) sensor that can track dopamine levels, MIT neuroscientists have discovered how dopamine released deep within the brain influences distant brain regions.
Brain activity intensity drives need for sleep
The intensity of brain activity during the day, notwithstanding how long we've been awake, appears to increase our need for sleep, according to a new UCL study in zebrafish, published in Neuron.
Do babies like yawning? Evidence from brain activity
Contagious yawning is observed in many mammals, but there is no such report in human babies.
Understanding brain activity when you name what you see
Using complex statistical methods and fast measurement techniques, researchers found how the brain network comes up with the right word and enables us to say it.
Your brain activity can be used to measure how well you understand a concept
As students learn a new concept, measuring how well they grasp it has often depended on traditional paper and pencil tests.
More Brain Activity News and Brain Activity Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.