January 16, 2020

Could increasing just a single type of molecule in the brain alleviate anxiety? According to researchers at the California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC), it could indeed.

Anxiety disorders often emerge around adolescence and can continue to affect people for most of their lives. Researchers can now identify children who display an extreme anxious or inhibited temperament and determine that they are at risk to develop stress-related conditions as they transition to adulthood. However, little is known about how to effectively alleviate anxious symptoms.

CNPRC scientists recently conducted a study examining “dispositional anxiety”—the tendency to perceive many situations as threatening—in nonhuman primates. Researchers used an altered virus to boost levels of a molecule called neurotrophin-3 in the dorsal amygdala of juvenile rhesus macaques.

They found that this increase led to a decrease in anxiety-related behaviors, particularly behaviors associated with inhibition, a core part of the early-life risk for developing anxiety disorders in humans. Brain imaging studies of these animals found that neurotrophin-3 changed activity throughout the brain that contributes to anxiety.

Because current treatments work for only a subset of people and often only partially relieve symptoms, this finding provides hope for new methods of early-life intervention to treat people at risk for anxiety disorders, depression and related substance abuse.

Andrew Fox, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychology and a researcher at the CNPRC, hopes that other scientists can further build on their research. The research team included a list of additional promising molecules for future investigation.

“We’re only just beginning,” noted Fox. “Neurotrophin-3 is the first molecule that we’ve been able to show in a nonhuman primate to be causally related to anxiety. It’s one of potentially many molecules that could have this effect. There could be hundreds or even thousands more.”

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