An Important Message For Your Brain In a Scary Time

The past few months have been trying on everyone's mental health, but new research has clues on how to "recalibrate" anxious brains.


Let’s face it, 2020 has been a tough year. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread political unrest, many are feeling emotionally drained and uncertain about the future.

In fact, the number of Canadians reporting high anxiety has quadrupled since COVID-19. And the longer this anxiety continues, the more difficult it could be to return to normal. But now, researchers from the University of Alberta have identified a chemical messenger that could help recalibrate anxious brains.

Working in male rats, the team focused on the amygdala, the part of the brain that combines information from our senses with our memories and experiences. It’s an area that functions abnormally in people suffering from conditions such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Led by neuroscientist and pharmacology professor Bill Colmers, the researchers discovered that two chemical messengers — corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and neuropeptide Y (NPY) — work in ‘synchronized opposition’ to control our response to stress. They showed that in response to a threat, CFR stimulates a change in our nerve cells. Dendrites, the cellular branches that transmit information, increase in number and length. With this increased signalling capacity, the brain triggers our fight or flight response.

But being on high alert for too long is unsustainable. So in healthy individuals, the body has a way of recalibrating.

Once the threat has passed NPY tells the brain to ‘stand down’ by binding to specific receptors and shrinking our neurons back to normal. Over the longer term, this team of researchers have also demonstrated that repeated NPY exposure can make rats more resilient to stress over weeks and even months.

This new understanding of how our brains respond to stress could lead to better treatments for anxiety.

“Anxiety disorders represent a huge unmet medical need. Any new information we can gather in relation to understanding the mechanisms involved with anxiety provides new targets for possible drug development,” explains Colmers.

However, the researchers stress that there is more work to be done. “While we definitely answered some of our questions with this latest study, it also revealed new questions, as the work was only conducted in male rats. The very important next question is whether this works the same in females.”

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Amy Noise is a science communicator who is fascinated by how and why the world works. Always learning, she is passionate about science and sharing it with the world to improve and protect our health, society and environment. Amy earned her BSc (biology and science communication) at the University of Manchester, and MSc (nutrition science and policy) at King’s College London, UK. She tweets sporadically @any_noise