Just made a bad decision? Perhaps anxiety is to blame

March 15, 2016, University of Pittsburgh
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: Anxiety is not overcome in the brain's fear center

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 ...

People with anxiety show fundamental differences in perception

March 3, 2016
People with anxiety fundamentally perceive the world differently, according to a study reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on March 3. They aren't simply making the choice to "play it safe."

Neuroeconomics to study decision-making in anxious individuals

July 23, 2012
Anxiety disorders affect approximately 40 million American adults each year, and although they are treatable, they often cause significant distress.

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.

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 ...

Researchers start to understand how the environment impacts state of mind

January 20, 2016
Anxiety disorder is the most common mental illness, affecting at least one in five adults. In their latest study, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich have shown that an enzyme called Dnmt3a is crucial ...

Recommended for you

To predict the future, the brain has two clocks

November 20, 2018
That moment when you step on the gas pedal a split second before the light changes, or when you tap your toes even before the first piano note of Camila Cabello's "Havana" is struck. That's anticipatory timing.

White matter pathway and individual variability in human stereoacuity

November 20, 2018
Researchers in the Center for Information and Neural Networks (CiNet), the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology and Osaka University have identified a human white matter pathway associated with ...

Researchers hope to be able to replace dysfunctional brain cells

November 20, 2018
A new study by researchers at Karolinska Institutet supports the theory that replacement of dysfunctional immune cells in the brain has therapeutic potential for neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and Alzheimer's disease. ...

MDMA makes people cooperative, but not gullible

November 19, 2018
New research from King's College London has found that MDMA, the main ingredient in ecstasy, causes people to cooperate better—but only with trustworthy people. In the first study to look in detail at how MDMA impacts cooperative ...

How the brain switches between different sets of rules

November 19, 2018
Cognitive flexibility—the brain's ability to switch between different rules or action plans depending on the context—is key to many of our everyday activities. For example, imagine you're driving on a highway at 65 miles ...

Mutation that causes autism and intellectual disability makes brain less flexible

November 19, 2018
About 1 percent of patients diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability have a mutation in a gene called SETD5. Scientists have now discovered what happens on a molecular level when the gene is mutated ...

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.