'Safety signals' may help slow down anxiety

December 09, 2019

For as many as one in three people, life events or situations that pose no real danger can spark a disabling fear, a hallmark of anxiety and stress-related disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants help about half the people suffering from anxiety, but millions of others do not find sufficient relief from existing therapies.

Researchers at Yale University and Weill Cornell Medicine report Dec. 9 on a novel way that could help combat such anxiety: When life triggers excessive fear, use a safety signal.

In humans and in mice, a symbol or a sound that is never associated with adverse events can relieve anxiety through an entirely different brain network than that activated by existing behavioral therapy, the researchers write in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"A safety signal could be a musical piece, a person, or even an item like a stuffed animal that represents the absence of threat," said Paola Odriozola, Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Yale and co-first author.

The approach differs from behavioral therapy, which slowly exposes patients to the source of their fear, such as spiders, until a patient learns that spiders do not represent a significant threat and anxiety is decreased. And for many people, exposure-based therapy does not truly help.

The new study may explain why.

In the new research, subjects were conditioned to associate one shape with a threatening outcome and a different shape with a non-threatening outcome. (In mice, tones were used in the conditioning instead of shapes.) The shape associated with threat alone was presented to subjects, and later subjects viewed both threatening and non-threatening shape together. Adding the second, non-threatening shape -- the safety signal -- suppressed the subjects' fear compared to the response to the threat-related shape alone. Brain imaging studies of both human and mice subjects presented with the signals showed this approach activated a different neural network than exposure therapy, suggesting safety signaling might be an effective way to augment current therapies.

"Exposure-based therapy relies on fear extinction, and although a safety memory is formed during therapy, it is always competing with the previous threat memory," explained Dylan Gee, assistant professor of psychology at Yale and co-senior author. "This competition makes current therapies subject to the relapse of fear -- but there is never a threat memory associated with safety signals."

Gee stressed that the need for alternatives for those suffering from anxiety-related disorders is great.

"Both cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants can be highly effective, but a substantial part of the population does not benefit sufficiently, or the benefits they experience don't hold up in the longer term," she said.
-end-
Heidi Meyer of Weill Cornell Medicine is a co-first author of the paper and Francis Lee of Weill is co-senior author. The research was primarily funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, the Jacobs Foundation, the Pritzker Neuropsychiatric Disorders Research Consortium, the New York-Presbyterian Youth Anxiety Center, the Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler family, the DeWitt-Wallace Fund of the New York Community Trust, and the National Science Foundation.

Yale University

Related Fear Articles from Brightsurf:

How does the brain process fear?
CSHL Professor Bo Li's team explores the brain circuits that underlie fear.

The overlap between fear and anxiety brain circuits
Fear and anxiety reflect overlapping brain circuits, according to research recently published in JNeurosci.

Fear of missing out impacts people of all ages
The social anxiety that other people are having fun without you, also known as FoMO, is more associated with loneliness, low self-esteem and low self-compassion than with age, according to a recent study led by Washington State University psychology professor Chris Barry.

How fear transforms into anxiety
University of New Mexico researchers identify for the first time the brain-wide neural correlates of the transition from fear to anxiety.

How associative fear memory is formed in the brain
Using a mouse model, a pair of UC Riverside researchers demonstrated the formation of fear memory involves the strengthening of neural pathways between two brain areas: the hippocampus, which responds to a particular context and encodes it, and the amygdala, which triggers defensive behavior, including fear responses.

What makes fear decrease
In uncanny situations, the mere presence of an unknown person can have a calming effect.

With these neurons, extinguishing fear is its own reward
The same neurons responsible for encoding reward also form new memories to suppress fearful ones, according to new research by scientists at The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT.

Having to defend one's sexuality increases fear of childbirth
In order to help people with fear of childbirth, there must be trust between the patient and the healthcare staff.

Fear of hospitalization keeps men from talking about suicide
Fear of psychiatric hospitalization is one of the primary reasons that older men -- an age and gender group at high risk for suicide -- don't talk about suicide with their physicians.

Brain activity predicts fear of pain
Researchers applied a machine learning technique that could potentially translate patterns of activity in fear-processing brain regions into scores on questionnaires used to assess a patient's fear of pain.

Read More: Fear News and Fear Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.