A team of researchers used virtual reality to understand the effect of anxiety on the brain and how brain regions interact with each other to shape behaviour.
The study was published in the Communications Biology Journal.
“These findings tell us that anxiety disorders may be more than a lack of awareness of the environment or ignorance of safety, but rather that individuals with an anxiety disorder cannot control their feelings and behavior even if they wanted to,” said Benjamin Suarez. Jimenez, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Rochester’s Del Monte Institute of Neuroscience and first author of the study.
He added: “Patients with an anxiety disorder can rationally say ‘I’m in a safe place’ but we’ve found that their brain behaves as if it isn’t.”
Using magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers observed the brain activity of volunteers with general and social anxiety as they navigated a virtual reality game of flower picking. Half of the meadow had flowers without bees, and the other half had flowers with bees that would sting them – as simulated by mild electrical stimulation of the hand. The researchers found that all study participants could distinguish between safe and dangerous areas, however, brain scans revealed that anxious volunteers had increased activation of the dorsolateral and prefrontal cortex – indicating that their brain was connecting a safe area known to danger or threat. .
“This is the first time we’ve looked at learning to distinguish in this way. We know which areas of the brain to look at, but this is the first time we’ve shown this pool of activity in a complex environment like the ‘real world’,” Suarez Jimenez said.
“These findings point to the need for treatments focused on helping patients regain control of their bodies,” he added.
Brain differences were the only differences observed in these patients. For example, responses to race, a proxy for anxiety, which were also measured, failed to reveal any obvious differences.
Understanding the neural mechanisms by which the brain learns about the environment is a focus of Suarez-Jimenez’s research, particularly how the brain predicts what is threatening and what is safe. Use virtual reality environments to investigate the neural signals of anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His goal is to understand how people construct maps of the brain based on experience, and the role of those maps in the mental illness of stress and anxiety.
“For the next steps in this latest research, we still need to clarify whether what we found in the brain of these patients is also the case in other disorders, such as PTSD. In safe environments, it can help us create better personalized treatment options.” .
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