After performing a study on mice, Scientists believe certain brain cells could help to train us to overcome fears and anxieties.
A method that has been commonly used up till now to tackle fears is exposure therapy, where someone encounters a perceived threat repeatedly until anxiety is no longer triggered.
For example, if you fear roaches, working yourself up to touch one overtime would suppress that fear, but unfortunately, the fearful memory never leaves you permanently – it simply coexists with the new good one.
However, scientists have yet to fully understand how it all works and why how the brain favors the good memory over the bad can switch in a moment.
Scientists performed and published a study in the journal Nature Neuroscience where mice were placed inside a box and scared into fearing their environment. Afterward, the mice underwent a form of exposure therapy so that they were no longer afraid of the box.
With equipment tailored to control the neurons in the mice’s brains, the scientists turned the extinction neurons on and off.
Extinction Neurons to the Rescue
The researchers have surmised that exposure therapy suppresses neurons that were at work when the fear memory was being formed while switching on extinction neurons to help provide a new perspective.
Fearful memories were suppressed when the scientists turned on the extinction neurons while, on the other hand, the scary memories came back when the extinction neurons were not mobilized.
While work on mice can’t absolutely relate to humans, it does give us possible insight on how exactly our brains work. For example, this could explain why exposure therapy can wear off, causing distressing images to return.
The scientists also observed that the neurons holding back fear were found in the hippocampus, memory control, rather than the amygdala, the area of the brain usually associated with being scared.
Dr. Michael Drew, senior author of the study and associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a statement: “Our paper demonstrates that the hippocampus generates memory traces of both fear and extinction, and competition between these hippocampal traces determines whether fear is expressed or suppressed.”
“These kinds of studies can help us understand the potential cause of disorders, like anxiety and PTSD, and they can also help us understand potential treatments,” he continued.
There are infinite possibilities with what could be done if these findings are used to develop new mental health treatments. An estimated 9.1 percent of adults in the U.S. had a phobia in the past year according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America states some 40 million adults in the U.S. experience an anxiety disorder in any given year. Many people could benefit from the results of this work.
A separate team of neuroscientists published a paper last week that looked at the issue from a different perspective – that of a woman who rarely, if ever, feels fear, anxiety, and pain.