Specialized Brain Cells in Mice Might Help Human With Anxiety

Isabella Terzoli, Social Media Manager

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Scientists from the University of San Francisco and Columbia University have discovered anxiety cells in mice that appear to control anxiety cells in humans. This can later lead to better treatments for anxiety disorders, which affect nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S..

Anxiety disorders involve excessive worry that doesn’t go away. These disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.

Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health and Mazen Kheirbek, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco and an author of the study are working on the experiment (to use these cells in humans).  

Karina Doughty, an 8th grader at Dana Middle School, says “I think having cells from mice put into my brain would be creepy.”

The discovery of anxiety cells is just the latest example of the “tremendous progress” scientists have made toward understanding how anxiety works in the brain.

Kheirbek and a team including several researchers from Columbia University discovered the cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain known to be involved in anxiety as well as navigation and memory. “If we can learn enough, we can develop the tools to turn on and off the key players that regulate anxiety in people,” Gordon says.

Scientists zeroed in on specific neurons in the brains of mice to gain insights into how anxiety is triggered and suppressed. “Mice tend to be afraid of open places,” Kheirbek says. So the team put mice in a maze in which some pathways led to open areas. They used a biological technique called optogenetics, which involves using light to control cells in living tissue. When they reduced the level of activity in the cells, the mice became less anxious and more willing to wander the open spaces of the maze.  

“If we turn down this activity, will the animals become less anxious? And what we found was that they did become less anxious. They actually tended to want to explore the open arms of the maze even more.” Kheirbek says.

The scientists, think that if they do the same with people, the people will be able to “explore the open areas.” Scientist are also hopeful that this will lower anxiety rates in humans.

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