Leicester scientists discover 'trigger' for anxiety

Posted by pt91 at Apr 28, 2011 12:40 PM |
An international team led by University of Leicester researchers has made an astounding breakthrough in uncovering the biological cause of stress disorders.

An estimated 30% of the population will experience a disorder such as depression, anxiety or posttraumatic stress disorder at some point in their lives. That’s a considerable proportion, yet although almost all of us will go through a traumatic event of some kind there is no telling who will go on to develop a stress disorder.

It was with this in mind that a team of neuroscientists from the University of Leicester, Poland’s Institute of Pharmacology and the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan decided to investigate factors that may make some individuals more vulnerable to stress than others. In a project that took four years to complete, Dr Robert Pawlak led a team from our Department of Cell Physiology and Pharmacology and Medical Research Council Toxicology Unit to determine how environmental stress can affect our anxiety at a biological level.

The results of their work, published online in Nature, focus on a protein called neuropsin discovered previously by co-author Professor Sadao Shiosaka. Previous studies have associated it with memory formation but for this work the researchers turned their eye to the amygdala, the part of our brains that has been associated with emotions.

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They discovered that the amygdala reacts to stress by increasing production of neuropsin, triggering a series of chemical events which in turn cause the amygdala to increase its activity. As a consequence, the gene Fkbp5 is turned on and that determines the stress response at a cellular level. Experiments in mice confirmed that the presence or absence of neuropsin affected their level of anxiety.

This has revealed a new ‘chemical pathway’, mapping a mechanism that controls anxiety in the brain for the first time. More work is now needed to apply this discovery to the human brain and more still to reveal its potential applications, but the researchers are confident that it could eventually help the prevention and treatment of stress-related psychiatric disorders and other anxiety-related issues.