Scientists discover how fear can quickly turn into anxiety within the brain

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The mental stability of people worldwide seems to be under constant attack in 2020. As the public fears for its safety from the coronavirus pandemic and socioeconomic unrest, a study finds this fear may be transforming into mental health disorders. A team of researchers from the University of Mexico has now discovered how the brain changes its reaction to fear into anxiety.

“Until now, psychiatrists had little information about what goes on in the brain after a fearful experience, and why some people don’t easily recover and remain anxious, for even as long as the rest of their lives,” lead researcher Bearer says in a media release.

The team of researchers wanted to shed light on fear transitioning into anxiety and how that can create post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for some.

Researchers examined fear reactions in rodents and not human subjects during the study. The team exposed rodents to a smell that scares them away, noted to be an odor given off by predators and typically used to protect outdoor barbecues from vermin. The study authors then observed how their brain responded to these threats; examining how rodents process fear and turns it into a mental health issue.

“We now know that brain activity in anxiety is not the same as in an acute fear response,” Bearer says. “With anxiety, neural activity is elevated across many specific regions of the brain, and normal coordination between regions is lost.”

Finding the key to anxiety

Researchers triggered anxiety by manipulated the brain activity of the subjects. They specifically altered the serotonin transporter (SERT), which is a main target of psychoactive drugs like cocaine. By ridding brains of the SERT gene (SERT-KO), anxiety thrives.

In terms of the anxiety, researchers looked into 45 sub-regions within the brain. Depending on the region, the smell that rodents feel threatened by were activated at different times.

As we spiral deeper into the pandemic, there’s not much optimism to be offered for people suffering from anxiety and PTSD. Recession, economic crashes, and protests do not help lower the risk, they intensify it. We’re in a time where health coping mechanisms are seen as essential. Cognitive therapy, music, exercise, and cooking are just a handful of helpful tools.

The study is published in the journal NeuroImage.