Just made a bad decision? Perhaps anxiety is to blame

March 15, 2016
brain
Credit: public domain

Most people experience anxiety in their lives. For some, it is just a bad, passing feeling, but, for many, anxiety rules their day-to-day lives, even to the point of taking over the decisions they make.

Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh have discovered a mechanism for how may disrupt . In a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, they report that anxiety disengages a region of the called the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is critical for flexible decision making. By monitoring the activity of neurons in the PFC while anxious rats had to make decisions about how to get a reward, the scientists made two observations. First, anxiety leads to bad decisions when there are conflicting distractors present. Second, under anxiety involve numbing of PFC neurons.

The data indicates that anxiety has an exquisitely selective effect on neuronal activity that supports decision making, says Bita Moghaddam, the lead author of the study and a professor in the Department of Neuroscience within the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. Up to now, scientists have mostly studied anxiety in animal models in the context of fear and measured how react to a threatening situation. But human anxiety is devastating, not merely because of how the person feels, but also because it can interfere with nearly all aspects of daily life including decision making, Moghaddam says.

Pitt researchers studied this aspect of anxiety by monitoring the activity of a large number of neurons as rats made decisions about which choice was most optimal for receiving a reward. They compared behavior and in two groups: one group that had a placebo injection and another that got a low dose of an anxiety-inducing drug.

As with many people who suffer from anxiety but go through day-to-day life and make decisions, the anxious rats completed the decision-making task and, actually, did not do too badly. But they made far more mistakes when the correct choice involved ignoring distracting information. "A brain locus of vulnerability for these anxiety-induced mistakes was a group of cells in the PFC that specifically coded for choice. Anxiety weakened the coding power of these neurons.

"We have had a simplistic approach to studying and treating anxiety. We have equated it with fear and have mostly assumed that it over-engages entire brain circuits. But this study shows that anxiety disengages brain cells in a highly specialized manner."

Perhaps, down the line, this better understanding of the brain mechanics behind anxiety and decision making, she says, could lead to better treatment of anxiety in people and, subsequently, better outcomes in the treatment of psychiatric disorders.

Explore further: Neuroeconomics to study decision-making in anxious individuals

Related Stories

Anxiety is not overcome in the brain's fear center

May 1, 2015

Scientists from the Center for Brain Research at MedUni Vienna are investigating how anxiety is processed and the flow of information in the brain in general: In a study, which has now been published in the leading magazine ...

Controlling anxiety

September 23, 2015

Researchers at Andreas Lüthi's laboratory have identified a cell type in the brain, which controls anxiety - a complex behavioral state - and have elucidated the underlying mechanisms. These findings thus improve our understanding ...

Anxiety disorders — just in your head?

January 21, 2016

This was her third trip to the emergency department in two days. She had been home watching TV when all of a sudden her heart started racing, she felt her face flush, her hands tingle and it was hard to catch her breath.

Recommended for you

The brain clock that keeps memories ticking

May 30, 2016

Just as members of an orchestra need a conductor to stay on tempo, neurons in the brain need well-timed waves of activity to organize memories across time. In the hippocampus—the brain's memory center—temporal ordering ...

Fish courtship pheromone uses the brain's smell pathway

May 30, 2016

Research at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan has revealed that a molecule involved in fish reproduction activates the brain via the nose. The pheromone is released by female zebrafish and sensed by smell receptors ...

Effects of maternal smoking continue long after birth

May 30, 2016

Early exposure to nicotine can trigger widespread genetic changes that affect formation of connections between brain cells long after birth, a new Yale-led study has found. The finding helps explains why maternal smoking ...

Study identifies how brain connects memories across time

May 23, 2016

Using a miniature microscope that opens a window into the brain, UCLA neuroscientists have identified in mice how the brain links different memories over time. While aging weakens these connections, the team devised a way ...

Neuroscientists illuminate role of autism-linked gene

May 25, 2016

A new study from MIT neuroscientists reveals that a gene mutation associated with autism plays a critical role in the formation and maturation of synapses—the connections that allow neurons to communicate with each other.

Teen brains facilitate recovery from traumatic memories

May 25, 2016

Unique connections in the adolescent brain make it possible to easily diminish fear memories and avoid anxiety later in life, according to a new study by Weill Cornell Medicine researchers. The findings may have important ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.