Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

How our brains get tripped up when we're anxious

Date:
September 14, 2010
Source:
University of Colorado at Boulder
Summary:
A new study sheds light on the brain mechanisms that allow us to make choices and ultimately could be helpful in improving treatments for the millions of people who suffer from the effects of anxiety disorders.

Competing neurons in this part of the brain help us make decisions, such as choosing words.
Credit: Image courtesy of Marie Banich

A new University of Colorado at Boulder study sheds light on the brain mechanisms that allow us to make choices and ultimately could be helpful in improving treatments for the millions of people who suffer from the effects of anxiety disorders.

Related Articles


In the study, CU-Boulder psychology Professor Yuko Munakata and her research colleagues found that "neural inhibition," a process that occurs when one nerve cell suppresses activity in another, is a critical aspect in our ability to make choices.

"The breakthrough here is that this helps us clarify the question of what is happening in the brain when we make choices, like when we choose our words," Munakata said. "Understanding more about how we make choices, how the brain is doing this and what the mechanisms are, could allow scientists to develop new treatments for things such as anxiety disorders."

Researchers have long struggled to determine why people with anxiety can be paralyzed when it comes to decision-making involving many potential options. Munakata believes the reason is that people with anxiety have decreased neural inhibition in their brain, which leads to difficulty making choices.

"A lot of the pieces have been there," she said. "What's new in this work is bringing all of this together to say here's how we can fit all of these pieces of information together in a coherent framework explaining why it's especially hard for people with anxiety to make decisions and why it links to neural inhibitors."

A paper on the findings appeared in the Aug. 30 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. CU-Boulder professors Tim Curran, Marie Banich and Randall O'Reilly, graduate students Hannah Snyder and Erika Nyhus and undergraduate honors thesis student Natalie Hutchison co-authored the paper.

In the study, they tested the idea that neural inhibition in the brain plays a big role in decision-making by creating a computer model of the brain called a neural network simulation.

"We found that if we increased the amount of inhibition in this simulated brain then our system got much better at making hard choices," said Hannah Snyder, a psychology graduate student who worked with Munakata on the study. "If we decreased inhibition in the brain, then the simulation had much more trouble making choices."

Through their model they looked at the brain mechanisms involved when we choose words. They then tested the model's predictions on people by asking them to think of the first verb that comes to mind when they are presented with a noun.

"We know that making decisions, in this case choosing our words, taps into this left-front region of the brain, called the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex," Munakata said. "We wanted to figure out what is happening in that part of the brain that lets us make these choices. Our idea here, which we have shown through the word-choosing model, is that there's a fight between neurons in this area of the brain that lets us choose our words."

They then tested the model's predictions that more neural inhibition in the brain makes it easier to make choices by examining the effects of increased and decreased inhibition in people's brains. They increased inhibition by using a drug called midazolam and found that people got much better at making hard choices. It didn't affect other aspects of their thinking, but rather only the area of making choices. They investigated the effects of decreased inhibition by looking at people with anxiety.

"We found that the worse their anxiety was, the worse they were at making decisions, and the activity in their left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex was less typical," Munakata said.

There are two ways in which the research could be helpful in improving treatments for anxiety, according to Snyder. While specific medications that increase neural inhibition are currently used to treat the emotional symptoms of anxiety disorders, the findings suggest that they might also be helpful in treating the difficulty those suffering from anxiety have in selecting one option when there are too many choices.

"Secondly, a more precise understanding of what aspects of cognition patients are struggling with could be extremely valuable in designing effective approaches to therapy for each patient," she said. "For example, if someone with an anxiety disorder has difficulty selecting among multiple options, he or she might benefit from learning how to structure their environment to avoid choice overload."

The work was done in CU-Boulder's Center for Determinants of Executive Function and Dysfunction, which brings together researchers from different areas of expertise on campus and beyond including experts on drug studies, neuroimaging and anxiety. The center is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Colorado at Boulder. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. H. R. Snyder, N. Hutchison, E. Nyhus, T. Curran, M. T. Banich, R. C. O'Reilly, Y. Munakata. Neural inhibition enables selection during language processing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1002291107

Cite This Page:

University of Colorado at Boulder. "How our brains get tripped up when we're anxious." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 September 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100913162520.htm>.
University of Colorado at Boulder. (2010, September 14). How our brains get tripped up when we're anxious. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100913162520.htm
University of Colorado at Boulder. "How our brains get tripped up when we're anxious." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100913162520.htm (accessed December 21, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Mind & Brain News

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Researchers Test Colombian Village With High Alzheimer's Rates

Researchers Test Colombian Village With High Alzheimer's Rates

AFP (Dec. 19, 2014) In Yarumal, a village in N. Colombia, Alzheimer's has ravaged a disproportionately large number of families. A genetic "curse" that may pave the way for research on how to treat the disease that claims a new victim every four seconds. Duration: 02:42 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Double-Amputee Becomes First To Move Two Prosthetic Arms With His Mind

Double-Amputee Becomes First To Move Two Prosthetic Arms With His Mind

Buzz60 (Dec. 19, 2014) A double-amputee makes history by becoming the first person to wear and operate two prosthetic arms using only his mind. Jen Markham has the story. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com
Prenatal Exposure To Pollution Might Increase Autism Risk

Prenatal Exposure To Pollution Might Increase Autism Risk

Newsy (Dec. 18, 2014) Harvard researchers found children whose mothers were exposed to high pollution levels in the third trimester were twice as likely to develop autism. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Yoga Could Be As Beneficial For The Heart As Walking, Biking

Yoga Could Be As Beneficial For The Heart As Walking, Biking

Newsy (Dec. 17, 2014) Yoga can help your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and heart just as much as biking and walking does, a new study suggests. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins