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How Scientists Discovered Where Anxiety Cells Lurk in Your Brain

anxious brain

Scientists have discovered the location where anxiety cells lurk in the brain through a study conducted on mice. Their findings, published today in the journal Neuron, may have valuable significance in understanding the role that anxiety plays in human brains.


Anxiety is a very real reality for many people. It becomes the lens through which they view the world, and their distorted perception proves to be frightening indeed. Unfortunately, anxiety is very prevalent in the United States, posing a depressing statistic of 1 out of every 5 adults. However, scientists discovered today which brain cells seem to actually control anxiety in mice.

Anxiety Cells Located Where?

The brain cells were located in the hippocampus, the center for learning and memory in the brain. The study authors do believe the same cells exist in humans.

“We call these anxiety cells because they only fire when the animals are in places that are innately frightening to them,” said Rene Hen, PhD, one of the study’s senior investigators and a professor of psychiatry at CUIMC. For mice, those frightening places happened to be wide open space and platforms.

As the anxiety cells in the hippocampus fire rapidly, signals to other areas of the brain are triggered like the hypothalamus and the amygdala which are also involved in the regulation of anxiety. Common symptoms of anxiety in humans include elevated heart rate, sweating, avoidance, and the secretion of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

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The scientists used a process called optogenetics to turn the cells on and off with beams of light. Through this process they were also able to control the neurons and thus prove that the anxiety cells did indeed control anxiety-related avoidance behaviors. In “off” mode, the mice wandered more into areas that would instinctively pose a threat to them in “on” mode. On the flip side, the mice exhibited anxious behaviors even in risk-free surroundings when the scientists activated the anxiety cells in the hippocampus.

Jessica Jimenez, an MD/PhD student at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, stated as the study’s lead author: “Now that we’ve found these cells in the hippocampus, it opens up new areas for exploring treatment ideas that we didn’t know existed before.”

Jessica wasn’t the only researcher thrilled at the discovery. The chief of the National Institute of Mental Health, Joshua Gordon, stated concerning the study: “The disclosure of anxiety cells is the only most recent case of the “colossal advance” scientists have made toward seeing how anxiety functions in the brain.”


In animals such as mice, anxiety is the instinctive 6th sense that ensures the arrival of the next generation, but anxiety itself can pose a distinct threat to humans. When people begin to overestimate situations they participate in on a daily basis, their bodies react with the same instinctive mechanism as though they were being chased by a predator. Chaos ensues as your body literally tries to protect you from yourself. How true it is that we can become our own worst enemy. Controlling a heightened stress response is vital to our health and wellbeing, and how ironic it is that science is using mice to teach us such a valuable life lesson.