People are quite different when it comes to trying dangerous or exhilarating things. Until now, however, the neural mechanism underlying this risk-taking behavior has remained largely unknown.
In a new study, neuroscientists from Uppsala University in Sweden and the Brain Institute of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil have found that certain cells in the hippocampus may play a key role in a person’s tendency toward either risk-taking or its opposing trait, anxiety. These cells may help determine whether you are more likely to get excited about skydiving or cringe in fear at the very thought of it.
These hippocampal cells, known as OLM cells, produce a brain rhythm that is found to be present when animals feel safe in a threatening environment (for example, when they are safely hiding from a predator but still aware of the predator’s proximity).
Previously, the same group of scientists discovered that OLM cells were the “gatekeepers” of memories in the hippocampus and that these cells were very sensitive to nicotine.
“This finding may explain why people binge-smoke when they are anxious,” said Dr. Richardson Leao, researcher at the Federal University.
The new findings reveal that anxiety and risk-taking behavior can be controlled by the manipulation of these OLM cells. In addition, OLM cells can be controlled by pharmacological agents.
Discovering a pathway that quickly and robustly modulates risk-taking behavior is very important for the treatment of pathological anxiety since reduced risk-taking behavior is a trait in people with high anxiety levels.
Presently, many patients with severe anxiety are given antidepressants, but these drugs act on the entire brain — not just in the areas where they are needed — and can result in side effects. Thus, if a drug were to act in a single brain region or even in a very specific group of cells, it would be a major breakthrough in treating anxiety and associated disorders like depression.
The discovery of these neurons and their role in anxiety and risk-taking may blaze a trail for the development of highly efficient anxiolytics and antidepressants without common side effects, such as apathy.
“It is fascinating how different regions of the same brain structure control distinct behaviours and how they interact with each other,” said Dr. Sanja Mikulovic at Uppsala University.
“Identifying specific circuits that underlie either cognitive or emotional processes is crucial for the general understanding of brain function and for more specific drug development to treat disorders.”
The new findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.
Source: Uppsala University