The Anxious Brain

“Since the 1960s, billions of dollars and probably millions of animals have gone into the search for new and better anti-anxiety medications,” said researcher Joseph LeDoux at an event this week on anxiety at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But drug makers, who have spent years targeting points along a brain pathway described as the “fear circuit” in animals, haven’t had the success they sought; they have stopped funding many studies. Why?

LeDoux, a Dana Alliance member at New York University who has studied this circuit for the past three decades, argues that the term we use may have blinded us to what the circuit actually does. Instead of labeling it with a human feeling, it would better to call it an unconscious “defensive survival circuit.” Other inputs lead to the conscious feelings of fear and anxiety. For example, while hiking, we have already recoiled from the snake on the trail before our conscious minds have hit the danger signal. The two things happen so fast, though, it’s easy to think the feeling led to the action—but we’re committing the first sin of science: confusing correlation and causation, LeDoux said.

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From left: moderator Mark Frankel, Joseph LeDoux, and Daniel Pine field questions from the audience.

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Public Event: The Anxious Brain

anxious brain AAAS.jpg

Phobias are the most common mental disorders in the United States, affecting about 10% of all adults, and many of them can be highly debilitating. They are a type of anxiety disorder, defined by a persistent fear of an object or situation, leaving some people unable to function in ordinary life. You have likely heard of acrophobia (fear of heights), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), and claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces). But have you heard of ephebiphobia (fear of teenagers), mageirocophobia (fear of cooking), or phobophobia (a fear of phobias)? The list goes on. Why do people develop phobias? Are some more susceptible than others? What mechanisms in the brain are in play when phobias strike and what does research reveal about effective treatments? Join us for this event and learn more about why phobias arise, the damage they can do, and how best to treat them, unless, of course, you are afflicted by sophophobia.

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Dana News E-Blast: July

Below is yesterday’s Dana News email blast. You can sign up to receive this (and other Dana email alerts and/or print publications) by going here.

The Power of Tau

july eblastby Patrick F. Sullivan, MD, FRANZCP

In July 2014, an international consortium of schizophrenia researchers mounted the largest biological experiment in the history of psychiatry. Now, with many more avenues for exploring the biological underpinnings of schizophrenia available to neuroscientists, hope may be on the way for the estimated 1 in 100 people worldwide affected by the illness. From Cerebrum, our online magazine of ideas. Also check out a Q&A with Dr. Sullivan.

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The Science Behind Fear and Anxiety

In a packed theater at the Rubin Museum last Wednesday, Joseph LeDoux, Ph.D., and Mark Epstein, M.D., shared the stage to untangle the mysteries behind two emotions that we are all too familiar with: anxiety and fear. Epstein is a psychiatrist in New York City, who blends Buddhist practices with his work in psychotherapy. Ledoux directs the Emotional Brain Institute of New York University, where he is also University Professor.

Epstein (left) and LeDoux (right) Photo by Lyn Hughes, courtesy Rubin Museum of Art

Epstein (left) and LeDoux (right) Photo by Lyn Hughes, courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

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The Neurobiology of Resilience

Rather than focusing only on the bad effects of stress, should researchers also look for ways to induce resilience to treat depression and anxiety disorders? Based on recent research, Eric Nestler, Ph.D., a Dana Alliance member and chair of neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, ponders this question in our recent briefing paper, “The Neurobiology of Resilience.”

The paper looks at both Nestler’s resilience research and that of his colleague Ming-Hu Han, Ph.D., an assistant professor in pharmacology and systems therapeutics at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School, who recently published a paper on global gene expression in resilient versus susceptible mice.

For every 100 genes that changed, either up or down, in susceptible mice, 300 genes changed in resilient mice, Han says.

“This was a very interesting finding because it means that resilient animals are not actually insensitive to stress, but rather are actively using more genes during stress,” says Han.

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