The racing heart, tingling fingers, inability to get a full breath, and sense of impending doom: it’s fun when you’re on a roller coaster or watching a suspense flick with your sweetie, but not so fun when you’re paralyzed in the grocery store, trying to decide which brand of apple juice to buy. According to The National Institute of Mental Health, over 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders, almost three times the amount of people who suffer from clinical depression. But researchers may be closer to understanding the root cause of these debilitating disorders, and coming up with more effective treatments.
A University of Michigan study published in the May 13 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience found that lower-than-average levels of fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2), a chemical that plays an important role in developing and regenerating brain cells, is linked to anxiety in rats. The information is nothing new — researchers have known for years that people suffering from severe anxiety or depression produced very low levels of FGF2 — but it was impossible to determine whether this was a symptom of anxiety or the cause. Now, they’ve been able to pinpoint the gene that is a “genetic vulnerability factor for anxiety,” according to the study’s leader, Javier Perez, PhD. In other words, you may have inherited your tendency toward anxiety.
The study looked at rats bred for nineteen generations to have a high level of anxiety. The gene responsible for producing FGF2 was underactive in these rats, and they had far less of the chemical than their laid-back counterparts. But when they were injected with FGF2, the rats calmed down and exhibited behavior similar to the less-stressed rats. Also, giving the nervous rats new toys or bigger cages increased their production of FGF2 naturally, and got the same positive results.
“This is surprising, as FGF2 and related molecules are known primarily for organizing the brain during development and repairing it after injury,” Perez said. Researchers suspect that FGF2 lowers anxiety by increasing the survival rate of new cells being generated in the hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for processing threatening or traumatic situations, and converting those events into memories. Evidently a healthy hippocampus is a happy hippocampus.
So what does any of this have to do with the average American worry-wart? Plenty, according to Pier Vincenzo Piazza, MD, an expert on the role creation of new brain cells plays in anxiety. “This discovery may pave the way for new, more specific treatments for anxiety that will not be based on sedation — like currently prescribed drugs — but will instead fight the real cause of the disease.”
Now that is something to feel good about.