Research pinpoints neural circuitry that promotes stress-induced anxiety

January 30, 2014 by Katie Neith
Research pinpoints neural circuitry that promotes stress-induced anxiety
A brain schematic shows the neural circuit found by caltech researchers to play a role in anxiety. the lateral septum is outlined in black. Credit: Allen Brain Atlas

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 18 percent of American adults suffer from anxiety disorders, characterized as excessive worry or tension that often leads to other physical symptoms. Previous studies of anxiety in the brain have focused on the amygdala, an area known to play a role in fear. But a team of researchers led by biologists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) had a hunch that understanding a different brain area, the lateral septum (LS), could provide more clues into how the brain processes anxiety. Their instincts paid off—using mouse models, the team has found a neural circuit that connects the LS with other brain structures in a manner that directly influences anxiety.

"Our study has identified a new neural circuit that plays a causal role in promoting states," says David Anderson, the Seymour Benzer Professor of Biology at Caltech, and corresponding author of the study. "Part of the reason we lack more effective and specific drugs for anxiety is that we don't know enough about how the processes anxiety. This study opens up a new line of investigation into the that controls anxiety."

The team's findings are described in the January 30 version of the journal Cell.

Led by Todd Anthony, a senior research fellow at Caltech, the researchers decided to investigate the so-called septohippocampal axis because previous studies had implicated this circuit in anxiety, and had also shown that in a structure located within this axis—the LS—lit up, or were activated, when anxious behavior was induced by stress in mouse models. But does the fact that the LS is active in response to stressors mean that this structure promotes anxiety, or does it mean that this structure acts to limit anxiety responses following stress? The prevailing view in the field was that the nerve pathways that connect the LS with different brain regions function as a brake on anxiety, to dampen a response to stressors. But the team's experiments showed that the exact opposite was true in their system.

In the new study, the team used optogenetics—a technique that uses light to control neural activity—to artificially activate a set of specific, genetically identified neurons in the LS of mice. During this activation, the mice became more anxious. Moreover, the researchers found that even a brief, transient activation of those neurons could produce a state of anxiety lasting for at least half an hour. This indicates that not only are these cells involved in the initial activation of an anxious state, but also that an anxious state persists even after the neurons are no longer being activated.

"The counterintuitive feature of these neurons is that even though activating them causes more anxiety, the neurons are actually , meaning that we would expect them to shut off other neurons in the brain," says Anderson, who is also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

So, if these neurons are shutting off other neurons in the brain, then how can they increase anxiety? The team hypothesized that the process might involve a double-inhibitory mechanism: two negatives make a positive. When they took a closer look at exactly where the LS neurons were making connections in the brain, they saw that they were inhibiting other neurons in a nearby area called the hypothalamus. Importantly, most of those were, themselves, inhibitory neurons. Moreover, those hypothalamic inhibitory neurons, in turn, connected with a third brain structure called the paraventricular nucleus, or PVN. The PVN is well known to control the release of hormones like cortisol in response to stress and has been implicated in anxiety.

This anatomical circuit seemed to provide a potential double-inhibitory pathway through which activation of the inhibitory LS neurons could lead to an increase in stress and anxiety. The team reasoned that if this hypothesis were true, then artificial activation of LS neurons would be expected to cause an increase in stress hormone levels, as if the animal were stressed. Indeed, optogenetic activation of the LS neurons increased the level of circulating stress hormones, consistent with the idea that the PVN was being activated. Moreover, inhibition of LS projections to the hypothalamus actually reduced the rise in cortisol when the animals were exposed to stress. Together these results strongly supported the double-negative hypothesis.

"The most surprising part of these findings is that the outputs from the LS, which were believed primarily to act as a brake on anxiety, actually increase anxiety," says Anderson.

Knowing the sign—positive or negative—of the effect of these cells on anxiety, he says, is a critical first step to understanding what kind of drug one might want to develop to manipulate these cells or their molecular constituents. If the cells had been found to inhibit anxiety, as originally thought, then one would want to find drugs that activate these LS neurons, to reduce anxiety. However, since the group found that these neurons instead promote anxiety, then to reduce anxiety a drug would have to inhibit these neurons.

"We are still probably a decade away from translating this very basic research into any kind of therapy for humans, but we hope that the information that this type of study yields about the brain will put the field and medicine in a much better position to develop new, rational therapies for psychiatric disorders," says Anderson. "There have been very few new psychiatric drugs developed in the last 40 to 50 years, and that's because we know so little about the brain circuitry that controls the emotions that go wrong in a psychiatric disorder like depression or anxiety."

The team will continue to map out this area of the brain in greater detail to understand more about its role in controlling stress-induced anxiety.

"There is no shortage of new questions that have been raised by these findings," Anderson says. "It may seem like all that we've done here is dissect a tiny little piece of brain circuitry, but it's a foothold onto a very big mountain. You have to start climbing someplace."

Explore further: Brain circuit can tune anxiety

More information: Cell paper: "Control of Stress-Induced Persistent Anxiety by an Extra-Amygdala Septohypothalamic Circuit"

Related Stories

Brain circuit can tune anxiety

August 21, 2013
Anxiety disorders, which include posttraumatic stress disorder, social phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder, affect 40 million American adults in a given year. Currently available treatments, such as antianxiety drugs, ...

Neuroscientists determine how treatment for anxiety disorders silences fear neurons

November 1, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Excessive fear can develop after a traumatic experience, leading to anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias. During exposure therapy, an effective and common treatment for anxiety ...

In the brain, broken down 'motors' cause anxiety

February 7, 2013
When motors break down, getting where you want to go becomes a struggle. Problems arise in much the same way for critical brain receptors when the molecular motors they depend on fail to operate. Now, researchers reporting ...

Navel gazing: Healthy gut bacteria can help you stress less

January 13, 2014
Striking new evidence indicates that the gut microbiome, the ecological community of microorganisms that share our body, has a huge effect on brain function – much larger than we thought.

Exercise reorganizes the brain to be more resilient to stress

July 3, 2013
Physical activity reorganizes the brain so that its response to stress is reduced and anxiety is less likely to interfere with normal brain function, according to a research team based at Princeton University.

Research shows how two brain areas interact to trigger divergent emotional behaviors

March 20, 2013
New research from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine for the first time explains exactly how two brain regions interact to promote emotionally motivated behaviors associated with anxiety and reward.

Recommended for you

Researchers find monkey brain structure that decides if viewed objects are new or unidentified

August 18, 2017
A team of researchers working at the University of Tokyo School of Medicine has found what they believe is the part of the monkey brain that decides if something that is being viewed is recognizable. In their paper published ...

Artificial neural networks decode brain activity during performed and imagined movements

August 18, 2017
Artificial intelligence has far outpaced human intelligence in certain tasks. Several groups from the Freiburg excellence cluster BrainLinks-BrainTools led by neuroscientist private lecturer Dr. Tonio Ball are showing how ...

Study of nervous system cells can help to understand degenerative diseases

August 18, 2017
The results of a new study show that many of the genes expressed by microglia differ between humans and mice, which are frequently used as animal models in research on Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.

How whip-like cell appendages promote bodily fluid flow

August 18, 2017
Researchers at Nagoya University have identified a molecule that enables cell appendages called cilia to beat in a coordinated way to drive the flow of fluid around the brain; this prevents the accumulation of this fluid, ...

Researchers make surprising discovery about how neurons talk to each other

August 17, 2017
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have uncovered the mechanism by which neurons keep up with the demands of repeatedly sending signals to other neurons. The new findings, made in fruit flies and mice, challenge ...

Neurons involved in learning, memory preservation less stable, more flexible than once thought

August 17, 2017
The human brain has a region of cells responsible for linking sensory cues to actions and behaviors and cataloging the link as a memory. Cells that form these links have been deemed highly stable and fixed.

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.