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Why Some People Have Increased Risk for Anxiety

Why Some People Have Increased Risk for Anxiety

New research suggests people suffering from anxiety perceive the world in a fundamentally different way than others. Investigators believe this finding may help to explain why certain people are more prone to anxiety.

The new study, published in the journal Current Biology, shows that people diagnosed with anxiety are less able to distinguish between a neutral, “safe” stimulus.

Researchers tested their hypothesis using the sound of a tone — a stimuli that had earlier been associated with gaining or losing money.

Investigators found that when some people have emotionally-charged experiences, they show a behavioral phenomenon known as “over-generalization.”

“We show that in patients with anxiety, emotional experience induces plasticity in brain circuits that lasts after the experience is over,” says Prof. Rony Paz of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

“Such plastic changes occur in primary circuits, and these later mediate the response to new stimuli. The result is an inability to discriminate between the experience of the original stimulus and that of a new, similar stimulus.

Therefore anxiety patients respond emotionally to the new stimuli as well and exhibit anxiety symptoms even in apparently irrelevant situations. They cannot control this response: it is a perceptual inability to discriminate.”

The study was a collaboration between psychiatrist Dr. David Israeli and Paz, and it was led by Dr. Offir Laufer, then a Ph.D. student in Paz’s group.

Paz and his colleagues recruited anxiety patients to participate in the study. They trained the patients to associate three distinct tones with one of three outcomes: money loss, money gain, or no consequence.

In the next phase, the participants were presented with one of several new tones and were asked whether the tone was one they had heard before while in training. If they were right, they were rewarded with money.

The best strategy would be to take care not to mistake (or over-generalize) a new tone for one they had heard in the training phase. But people with anxiety were more likely than healthy controls to think that a new tone was one they had heard earlier.

That is, they were more likely to mistakenly associate a new tone with the earlier experience of money loss or gain. Those differences were not explained by differences in participants’ hearing or learning abilities.

Investigators explain that the participants simply perceived sounds that were earlier linked to an emotional experience differently.

Functional magnetic resonance images (fMRIs) of the brains of people with anxiety and those of healthy controls revealed differences in the activity of several brain regions. These differences were mainly found in the amygdala, a region related to fear and anxiety, as well as in the primary sensory regions of the brain.

Researchers believe these results strengthen the idea that emotional experiences induce long-term changes in sensory representations in anxiety patients’ brains.

The findings might help explain why some people are more prone to anxiety than others.

The underlying brain plasticity that leads to anxiety isn’t in itself bad, Paz says.

“Anxiety traits can be completely normal; there is evidence that they benefitted us in our evolutionary past. Yet an emotional event, sometimes even a minor one, can induce brain changes that can potentially lead to full-blown anxiety,” he says.

Therefore, understanding how the process of perception operates in anxiety patients may help lead to better treatments for the disorder.

Source: Weizmann Institute of Science

Why Some People Have Increased Risk for Anxiety

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2016). Why Some People Have Increased Risk for Anxiety. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 26, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2016/03/11/why-some-people-have-increased-risk-for-anxiety/100318.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 11 Mar 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 11 Mar 2016
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.