Before the pandemic levels of anxiety were already pretty high, with one in five of us struggling.
But, unsurprisingly, the figures have soared in the past couple of years, to one in three.
Coping with anxiety is not easy and controlling it is sometimes, well, nigh impossible. So any new insight into how the brain handles it is welcome.
Bristol University researchers have opened the window on our understanding by locating a centre in the brain for anxiety.
They say finding a key pathway there brings hope of a potential new drug target for treating anxiety and psychological disorders, which affect 264million people worldwide.
We need new drugs as existing anxiety-reducing ones aren’t effective for everyone and often have unwanted side effects.
Understanding the brain networks and mechanisms that underlie fear and anxiety may offer a new approach to developing better treatments.
The Bristol neuroscientists turned their attention to the brain’s cerebellum, which is in the rear part of the brain.
It’s connected to many brain regions linked to survival, including the PAG (periaqueductal grey), a structure that co-ordinates survival mechanisms, including “freezing” behaviour, when you feel paralysed by fear.
Researchers discovered the PAG can form a “fear memory” when fear is felt, accompanied by freezing – a behavioural measurement of fear.
In other words, the cerebellum encodes a fear memory and as a memory it can return and replay. This sounds a lot like post traumatic stress disorder to me.
The Bristol team has shown that manipulation of the cerebellar-PAG pathway causes lessening of fear-conditioned freezing in animals.
Lead authors, Dr Charlotte Lawrenson and Dr Elena Paci, explain: “Importantly, our results show that the cerebellum is part of the brain’s survival network that regulates fear memory processes at multiple timescales and in multiple ways; raising the possibility that dysfunctional interactions in the brain’s cerebellar-survival network may underlie fear-related disorders and co-morbidities.”
This is quite revolutionary in our thinking about anxiety. We’ve always believed it was generated in deep brain centres like the amygdala and in response to stress hormones.
Finding this new site for anxiety in the cerebellum gives us a whole different approach for drugs and therapies.
So as the cerebellum plays a key role in the fear/anxiety network, it offers a novel target for treating psychological conditions, including PTSD.