Scientists have identified cells in the brain which could influence how brave you are, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications.
People vary significantly when it comes to their willingness to try dangerous or exhilarating things, however, the biological mechanisms in the brain underpinning these tendencies have long remained a mystery.
Now, researchers from Uppsala University, Sweden, and the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil, have found a group of cells in the brain’s hippocampus which are thought to play a key role in risk-taking behavior and anxiety.
In their paper, the team showed that certain neurons, or nerve cells, known as OLM cells, produce a type of brain wave when stimulated that is present when animals feel safe in a threatening environment—for example, when hiding from a predator.
The manipulation of these OLM cells was found to influence anxiety and risk-taking behavior in animal models, according to the researchers. The discovery of this brain mechanism could have significant implications for the treatment of anxiety disorders in humans, seeing as reduced risk-taking behavior is a trait common in people who suffer from such conditions.
Normal anxiety is essential for survival because it enables us to avoid threats and protect ourselves from harm. But large numbers of people today suffer chronic anxiety which can severely impact quality of life.
Treatments for anxiety often involve antidepressants, however, these drugs have an impact on the entire brain, not only in the regions where they are needed, and can often have severe side effects. In this context, the latest results could enable scientists to develop treatments that target a specific brain region or group of cells in order to alleviate the symtpoms of anxiety and associated disorders, such as depression.
The hippocampus is a brain structure that is well-known for its role in memory and cognition, however, its influence over our emotions is not so well understood (although new studies such as the latest Nature Communications paper are helping to change this situation).
“It is fascinating how different regions of the same brain structure control distinct behaviors and how they interact with each other,” Sanja Mikulovic, an author of the study from Uppsala University, said in a statement. “Identifying specific circuits that underlie either cognitive or emotional processes is crucial for the general understanding of brain function and for more specific drug development to treat disorders.”