Lifestyle Changes Alter Brain Chemical to Reduce Anxiety

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Lifestyle changes and depression treatment

Researchers have targeted a brain chemical that makes people more prone to anxiety. The study sheds new light on how lifestyle changes can help overcome anxiety and depression by altering the important chemical involved in development.

The study, conducted on animals, shows that fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2), is an important chemical in brain development. Low levels are associated with a predisposition for anxiety. The study suggests that changing behavior, by enriching one’s environment, can alter FGF2 and reduce anxiety.

For the study, rats that were bred for high anxiety were given a series of new toys. They subsequently were found to have higher levels of FGF2, reducing anxiety behaviors. The results are akin to humans making lifestyle changes that raise FGF2 to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Past studies have shown that depression is associated with low levels of the chemical, but researchers never understood whether depression or the chemical imbalance came first.


Javier Perez, PhD, also at the University of Michigan led the study. According to Perez, "We have discovered that FGF2 has two important new roles: it's a genetic vulnerability factor for anxiety and a mediator for how the environment affects different individuals. This is surprising, as FGF2 and related molecules are known primarily for organizing the brain during development and repairing it after injury." Changing ones environment through lifestyle modification could essentially repair the brain to reduce anxiety in susceptible individuals.

The study authors believe FGF2 may promote survival of new cells that develop in the hippocampus of the brain. Previous studies show that new brain cells die in the presence of depression. The formation of new brain cells is known as neurogenesis. When the researchers compared brain cells in rats bred for high anxiety, to those bred for low anxiety, they found that they formed the same number of hippocampal brain cells. However, the brain cells did not survive in rats bred for anxiety. Enriching the rat’s environment resulted in restoration of the brain cells, as did treatment with FGF2. The study findings suggest that lifestyle changes, or treatment with FGF2 may both be effective treatments for anxiety and depression.

Lifestyle changes and treatment with FGF2 may replace traditional pharmaceuticals that include sedation for anxiety treatment. According to neurogenesis expert Pier Vincenzo Piazza, MD, PhD, Director of the Neurocentre Magendie, lifestyle changes, and/or treatment of depression with FGF2 would “instead fight the real cause” of depression.

Society for Neuroscience