What happens to a person’s brain when they suffer from anxiety? Shall we take a look?
There have been countless studies of people suffering from mental health illnesses but it is still an area where we don’t know everything. I’m sure you are all aware there is not really a cure for depression and anxiety. Just a bunch of strategies used to try and help aid sufferers. A recent study was conducted into anxiety by the Departments of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering at Washington University.
Those clever people discovered the during an anxiety attack there are a specific part of the brain active. Which in itself is probably no surprise.
The research has been posted in the massively popular science magazine “Nature”. As part of the study scientists including Ilya Monosov, studied monkey brains during stressful situations that were likely to cause the animals anxiety. I know what you’re thinking humans aren’t monkeys, but we are similar to these ones in many ways. The way our brains operate is remarkably alike.
This condition is rife
It’s not like suffering from anxiety is rare in this day and age. In the UK alone there are estimated to be around 8 million sufferers. Of course, anxiety attacks are often brought on by simple worries or fears. But an anxiety attack is very different from just being a little scared. It can often trigger our most basic fight, flight or freeze functions.
When these responses kick in your body is filled with various hormones such as adrenaline which makes your heart rate speed up massively and gives your body a surge of energy. Back when we were all hunter/gatherers this would have been advantageous as it helped us to fight off predators or escape dangers. But when the thing you are scared off is doing a work presentation it’s a terrible thing! The last thing you want is to run away.
The experiment and its findings
So what were these tests then? How did they work? Basically, Dr Monosov took a couple of monkeys and taught them to associate three different patterns with three different outcomes. I guess you could liken it to Pavlov’s dogs. The patterns responded to one of three actions. The first was a puff of air into the monkey’s face which obviously the monkey isn’t keen on. Another one of the images carries a 50% chance of the monkey getting a “face puffing”. The third pattern carries no consequence.
Now for the science part whilst this activity was going on the primates were hooked up to an MRI machine. This looked at activity in an area of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This is the part of the brain that deals with stuff like uncertainty
The results may not be quite what you expect. When the monkeys saw the images that represented either a guaranteed response or no response the AAC showed no activity. However, these cells were called into action whenever the subjects were shown the 50/50 pattern.
Dr Monosov commented on the discovery of a particular group of neurons in monkeys that activated when they thought something bad was about to happen. For instance a puff of air to the face. These neurons did not “fire” when the monkeys knew it was going to happen though.
This research has opened up a new school of thought on how anxiety works and Dr Monosov hopes that it may open new avenues of treatment for the condition. It lends credence to the old adage of fear coming from uncertainty which anyone who likes a good horror movies will attest to.