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New Brain Mechanism Discovered for Anxiety

File this in the folder of new research discoveries that could lead to new, better targeted medications for one of the world’s most common mental concerns — anxiety.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 40 million American adults ages 18 and older — or nearly 1 in 5 people in this age group in a given year — have an anxiety disorder. Most people with one anxiety disorder also have another anxiety disorder. Nearly three-quarters of those with an anxiety disorder will have their first episode by age 21.

Currently, the standard of care for anxiety treatment is either a short-acting psychiatric medication — most often a benzodiazepine for the treatment of things like panic disorder — and psychotherapy.

All of this could change if University of Alberta neuroscientists have their way. We’ve long known chemicals in the brain associated with an increase or decrease in anxiety. But their new research discovered exactly how those chemicals work, opening the door for more targeted brain treatments to be developed in the future.

The researchers, led by William Colmers, have made a real breakthrough with their description of ion channels:

But through their research they discovered how those chemicals work – they regulate an “ion channel,” part of a cell that makes neurons more likely to fire, causing anxiety, or less likely to fire, preventing anxiety.

“The ion channels are usually pretty good drug targets,” said Colmers, a professor of pharmacology with the university’s faculty of medicine and dentistry. That means new medications can be created to block the brain’s anxiety-producing messages, he said.

The best part about this discovery for people with anxiety is that if a medication can be developed to target these particular ion channels, it may be a long-lasting medication that only needs to be taken once in awhile:

The research also found that when scientists repeatedly blocked those anxious messages in lab rats over a five-day period, the rats became resistant to stress for months. “So there’s a big, long-term change,” Colmers said.

That could be important in treating anxiety disorders such as panic attacks and post-traumatic stress, which can be triggered by a traumatic event.

“By blocking these ion channels, it’s our bet anyway, that we may be able to reverse that whole process … If somebody’s been, let’s say, a soldier in a firefight, maybe they could come back and get a treatment that prevents that ion channel from being made in those cells and so prevent … the condition from coming up in the first place.”

While this discovery is just the beginning of a very long research process that would likely take 10 to 15 years for the development, research and approval of new medications or other treatment methods based upon it, it still is exciting. Such significant brain discoveries like this seem to be few and far between.

The new study is published in the latest issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

New Brain Mechanism Discovered for Anxiety

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). New Brain Mechanism Discovered for Anxiety. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 19 Dec 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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