Anxiety disorders are common. Yet, many find current treatments methods only partially effective.
Anxiety disorders are common and may be growing more so. 40 million US adults suffer from one in some form, about 18% of the population. Worldwide, 260 million live with an anxiety disorder, according to the WHO. Economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz reported in 2016 that anxiety disorders have doubled in the US since 2008. There are a number of different kinds. There’s general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety, and of course, a near countless number of phobias.
Although common, physicians aren’t sure what exactly brings on such a disorder. They usually hit a person in the prime of their life, and the treatments we have now are generally, only partially effective. Medical researchers hypothesize that it’s a combination of genes, environmental conditions, and changes inside the brain that lead to such a disorder.
Anxiety often runs in families and epigenetic markers for it have been identified. Epigenetics is the system by which genes are marked to become either expressed or suppressed. A recent study found that epigenetic changes associated with anxiety that occurred in holocaust victims, were passed down to their children.
Although we know that damaged circuits inside the brain are related to anxiety disorders, we haven’t had a clue which ones, until now. Neuroscientists have announced they’ve identified the brain cells associated with anxiety in mice. This was a collaboration of researchers from UC-San Francisco and Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center. Mazen Kheirbek, Ph.D., was the senior investigator. He’s an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCSF. He and his colleagues results were published in the journal Neuron.
Researchers at UCSF and Columbia University identified “anxiety cells” in the brains of mice. Credit: Pixababy.
These “anxiety cells” are where the emotion is stored. Kheirbek and colleagues started their search with the hippocampus, a part of the brain known to be associated with anxiety. It’s also involved in emotion and memory. Researchers placed miniaturized microscopes in the brains of mice and then put the rodents in stressful situations.
Mice are afraid of wide open spaces, where they can easily be spotted and scooped up by a predator. So the scientists took these newly equipped mice and placed them inside mazes where some of the corridors terminate in an open space. Kheirbek told NPR, "What we found is that these cells became more active whenever the animal went into an area that elicits anxiety." The reason researchers call them “anxiety cells” is, these special neurons only fire when the animal confronts a situation that’s scary.
Although this showed that such cells are involved with anxiety, it didn’t prove that the feeling originated with them. To prove that, Kheirbek and colleagues employed a technique called optogenetics, where neural activity is controlled using beams of light. When they turned up activity in the aforementioned brain cells, the animal became more anxious, but when they turned down activity, it became less so.
Optogenetics is a system that introduces genetic material containing opsin into neurons for protein expression, and applying light emitting instruments to activate it. Credit: Pama E.A. Claudia, Colzato Lorenza, Hommel Bernhard, Wikimedia Commons.
Even though it’s the origin, the emotion doesn’t start and stop with anxiety neurons. "These cells are probably just one part of an extended circuit by which the animal learns about anxiety-related information,” Kheirbek said.
Connections to the smell circuit and memory circuits for instance, might remind a mouse that a certain smell in the past, say cat urine, lead to a dangerous situation, like almost getting eaten. So these cells in the hippocampus may be where anxiety emanates from, but many other brain circuits’ work in concert with it, to help the mouse navigate the environment.
The hope is to develop better anxiety medications. "The therapies we have now have significant drawbacks," Kheirbek told NPR. "This is another target that we can try to move the field forward for finding new therapies."
Imagine a specialized drug that can snap anxiety off like a switch? The limitation of this study is that, such cells were identified in mice and not in humans. Still, researchers are pretty sure we have them, too. And future studies will likely corroborate these findings.
To learn more about optogenetics, click here:
Personifying certain drugs as evil while calling opioid users “victims” points a glaring spotlight on drug policies that aren't really about public health.
For centuries Europeans drank—and for some today, drink—a lot of ale. Numerous accounts of polluted water in the 13th to 18th centuries abound, which apparently forced the citizens of London and Germany to drink plenty of alcohol—one entry from St. Paul’s Cathedral allowed for one bola (gallon) per person every day. Others claim that such an amount was unsustainable on the environment, if not the liver.
Whether or not the English and Germans drank a gallon a day, it is certain that beer was an integral part of daily life, especially in monasteries. While it was common knowledge that a little alcohol elevates the spirits, it certainly was not considered a drug. At least a portion of the water sources really were contaminated. Even if widespread pollution is a myth, who wouldn’t want to believe it true if the solution meant breakfast with ale?
Our beliefs about the substances we ingest have always dictated public attitude toward them. “Drug” is a relative term. Ayahuasca has long been medicine for the soul—advocates call it “grandmother medicine,” with the grandfather being peyote. Marijuana’s history as a Schedule One substance is much shorter than its common usage in numerous cultures. Substances that alter consciousness are usually deemed sacraments, not sacrilegious. That changed roughly 50 years ago from a policy perspective.
That attitude changed for the same reason that the idea of building a wall on our Mexican border persists: racism. Carl Hart, who chairs the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, recently stated that the war on drugs is simply a war on race. This is not mere speculation. Last year an interview was published with a former aide to Richard Nixon in which he stated the war on drugs was specifically waged to put down any chance of minority revolt.
“Drugs” are simply chemical substances with a physiological effect. Sugar is a drug, as is tobacco and caffeine, all of which have detrimental effects when used in excess. A beer a day might not be a bad thing, but a six-pack (or gallon) daily slowly kills you. Since these are socially acceptable and legal, we tend to gloss over their categorization as drugs. We certainly don’t have moral directives against these substances, save for certain religious groups, such as Mormons opposing alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine—at least in the form of coffee and tea since no sanctions against soda and chocolate exist. As stated, it’s always relative.
The relativity of drugs within groups is one thing. When it affects policy, however, a moral argument is waged against citizens who might not share those morals, and that is a problem. While we are currently undoing five decades of marijuana prohibition Jeff Sessions has recently stated that marijuana is “only slightly less dangerous” than heroin—a provably false claim. Society is waking up from a daze; our attorney general is attempting to keep us in it.
Sessions, who also champions Nancy Reagan’s failed war on drugs—the same racially motivated drug search Nixon, in a lineage kicked off by Harry Anslinger, initiated—is partaking in the same form of verbal gymnastics his forebears used. In his imagination, marijuana is a gateway drug. Reagan went a step further when she personified drugs:
Drugs steal away so much. They take and take. Drugs take away the dream from every child’s heart and replace it with a nightmare.
Trade one boogeyman for another, in this case the “other” races in our nation. Hart argues that such language confuses the public. It's not only the drug that is vilified, but the ethnicities most associated with using that drug—an approach that recently hit a roadblock with the opioid epidemic.
Oxycontin, a commonly prescribed opioid, and a flowering cannabis plant.
Strangely, we’ve never had a marijuana epidemic. Yet no substance has been used to incarcerate more Americans. Marijuana is not being and has never been treated as an issue of rehabilitation, as is occurring in communities plagued by opioids. Hart believes this strikes at the heart of the race issue. Discussing other nations with more sensible drug policies, he says:
They do this all around the world, because their first concern is keeping people safe, and not morality.
Why are morals not being used to combat opioids, especially considering numerous people use marijuana for the very same reason—pain relief? In 2015, 52,000 people died from overdoses; two-thirds of those were associated with opiates such as fentanyl and OxyContin. This has prompted Senator Claire McCaskill to ask pharmaceutical companies to release literature they use to influence doctors to prescribe their drugs.
As long as drugs like marijuana remain Schedule One and no national legislation addresses legality (as is happening in the states), such a question remains impossible to ask. But it does show the different approach politicians are taking to this particular drug problem. Sessions has never discussed opioids as a gateway drug; he has even called data showing legalized marijuana helps combat opioid addiction “stupid.”
As Saralyn Lyons reports in Johns Hopkins University's HUB:
To keep drug policy in America from being hijacked by morality and exaggeration, Hart encouraged a reframing of the conversation: Drug users should "come out of the closet" to change the narrative that users are inherently abusers. "Drug users are me," he said.
Personifying certain drugs as evil while calling opioid users “victims” strikes at the root of this linguistic (and psychological) posturing. Hart suggests a more compassionate approach, not one sponsored only by a “white face,” to deal with our actual drug problems—this includes crack cocaine in minority communities, another drug treated as a crime and not a tragedy. This means removing morality from the picture to investigate the real effects of each drug and how we’re addressing them. And that means being honest with data.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.