Anxiety can be defined as a feeling of intense fear or worry which can reduce one's ability to process or cope with a particular thought. It is also the human body's natural response to feelings of stress.

Although it is a natural reaction, anxiety can be felt differently by different people, and is primarily caused by either emotional or certain medical problems.

Data show that a modern lifestyle and the various pressures that come with it are driving up cases of anxiety disorders. An American Psychiatric Association poll in 2017 suggested that nearly two-thirds of the sample size were experiencing anxiety about their well-being, and another one-third feeling more anxious than the previous year in general.

The same year, a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry noted that about one in seven Indians was suffering from a mental health disorder. Of the 197 million people with a mental health problem in the country, about 45 million were suffering from anxiety disorders alone, according to the study.

This increased burden of mental health problems around the world has occasioned numerous studies for understanding the problem more deeply. A study published in the journal Scientific Reports in July 2020 has tried to look at the physical manifestation of anxiety in the brain to be able to come up with more effective ways to diagnose and treat the condition.

Read more: Home remedies for stress

  1. What anxiety looks like on brain scans
  2. Differences in structural and functional parts of the brain in anxiety
  3. How fear turns into anxiety
Doctors for New research shows what anxiety looks like in the brain

The research was carried out by a team of scientists at the University of Trento in Italy. The researchers looked at 42 brain scans from people who experienced different kinds of anxiety, and observed structural differences in brain anatomy as well as differences in brain activity among people with different forms of anxiety.

The two main kinds of anxiety that were studied were temporary and chronic anxiety, which the researchers termed as state and trait anxiety. State anxiety is more temporary or event-specific in nature, while trait anxiety is the more chronic form of the problem.

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This was perhaps the first study to look at the impact of different kinds of anxiety and severity of anxiety on the physical brain.

Lead research scientist Dr Nicola De Pisapia performed the imaging tests and looked at MRI scans—both structural and functional or fMRI—of the 42 patients suffering from either state or trait anxiety.

The scientists then performed psychometric tests, which required the participants to describe their state of mind and feelings through various statements.

The researchers found a few key differences in the structural as well as functional aspects of the brain, depending on the type of anxiety. The scientists especially focused on part of the brain that deals with feelings and emotion, the anterior cingulate cortex (it's in the forward part of the brain, and is responsible for decision-making, impulse-control, and of course, emotions, among other things).

The scientists found that the difference in the anatomy in that part of the brain could explain why people with trait anxiety often have negative thoughts that occur repeatedly.

However, those with state or temporary periods of anxiety were said to have functional differences in their brain, which was a sign of temporary changes in the activity of the brain, but structural changes were not seen in them.

The researchers consider their findings to be significant in the study of mental health and suggested that further research could help chart out more definitive diagnosis and treatment strategies.

The scientists also suggested that with the help of their research, newer techniques could be developed that can diagnose the specific anxiety with more accuracy, which can help in devising the right approach towards treatment.

The researchers also highlighted that anxiety must be treated or reduced when symptoms start to show, to be able to prevent it from becoming chronic later in life. They deduced that state or episodic anxiety must be treated at the root so that it doesn't turn or manifest into trait anxiety or chronic anxiety.

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Although the sample size of the study was small, more research should be done to be able to have more definitive knowledge of the happenings inside the brain, especially to study the structural and functional changes the brain goes through during episodes of anxiety and other mental health problems.

Another study, conducted separately by researchers at the University of New Mexico around the same time, looked at how constant fear of the future—the causative factors could be anything; for example, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting crippling of global economies—could eventually lead to chronic anxiety. The research takes a look at how situations of life-threatening fear manifest into feelings of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

The study, which was published in the journal NeuroImage, was performed on mice, by exposing them to different smells that usually alert them to imminent danger, such as that of chemical products or the smell of a larger predator. The scientists did so by manipulating the serotonin transporter of the brain, which is triggered during the consumption of psychoactive drugs such as antidepressants.

The researchers looked at scans of brain activity under normal circumstances as well as when they removed the SERT-KO gene. The scientists observed differences in neural activity in about 45 different parts of the brain. They were able to observe that neural activity in the brain became elevated in different parts of the brain leading to a loss of coordination between the various regions, leading to feelings of anxiety.

Read more: Ayurvedic treatment for anxiety

Dr. Hemanth Kumar

Dr. Hemanth Kumar

Neurology
3 Years of Experience

Dr. Deepak Chandra Prakash

Dr. Deepak Chandra Prakash

Neurology
10 Years of Experience

Dr Madan Mohan Gupta

Dr Madan Mohan Gupta

Neurology
7 Years of Experience

Dr. Virender K Sheorain

Dr. Virender K Sheorain

Neurology
19 Years of Experience

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References

  1. Saviola F et al. Trait and state anxiety are mapped differently in the human brain. Scientific Reports. 2020 Jul; 10: 11112.
  2. Leal PC et al. Trait vs. state anxiety in different threatening situations. Trends in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy. 2017 Jul-Sep; 39(3).
  3. Uselman TW et al. Evolution of brain-wide activity in the awake behaving mouse after acute fear by longitudinal manganese-enhanced MRI. NeuroImage. 2020 May; 116975.
  4. Anxiety and Depression Association of America [Internet]. Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. Anxiety Disorders: Facts and Statistics.
  5. National Health Service [Internet]. UK; Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
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