From social media to student loans, Americans and westerners are increasingly faced with anxiety. This low-grade stressor contributes to illness, chronic disease, and general unhappiness, but until now has been hard to pinpoint for treatment.
New researched published in Nature Communications suggests that a specific cluster of neurons called the anterior cingulate cortex might be responsible for many aspects of anxiety. Before this study, scientists have known of this part of the brain and the correlation between anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and mental illness. Now scientists understand a bit more about how this cluster of neurons operates.
Uncertainty, Anxiety, and Cell Disruption
To test anxiety, Dr. Ilya Monosov at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis studied how the brain of a rhesus monkey reacted to uncertainty. The monkeys were faced with geometric designs, which all had different meanings. One indicated the monkey would get a puff of air in the face, one suggested a 50/50 possibility, and the other indicated no chance of a puff of air.
When the geometric pattern indicated a 50/50 chance, a specific series of neurons fired in the brain that did not fire when the monkey was assured to get a puff in the face. Dr. Monosov concluded that this shows the monkeys were responding not only to the unpleasantness of an experience, but also the uncertainty of it.
There seems to be a strong correlation between anxiety and uncertainty, at least through the study of rhesus monkeys.
“Now that we know which cells are active when an animal is faced with the uncertainty of a bad experience, we can try to disrupt the activity of these cells.” said Monosov.
As new research continues, the possibility of altering neurons for anxiety treatments becomes more possible.
Anxiety: Here and Now
Despite the compelling new research, millions of Americans and westerners are suffering from anxiety today. There seems to be no neurological intervention to treat anxiety though there are several opportunities for biohackers and self-experimenters.
Neurofeedback is a technique, which has been around for decades, that helps to alter brain waves. While strapping electrodes onto the brain may seem dangerous, it's a relatively safe procedure considered “brain training” that can be used to re-wire certain connections including anxiety.
Besides neurofeedback, there are numerous nootropic options purported to aid in anxiety treatment. Basic options include ashwagandha, L-theanine, and more advanced anxiety sufferers might benefit from something like tianeptine. While it's uncertain whether these nootropics and smart drugs have any impact on the anterior cingulate cortex and the neurons that regulate anxiety, they can help for those who cannot wait for the research to catch up.