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Researchers used virtual reality to understand how anxiety affects the brain and how brain areas interact with each other to shape behaviour.

The study was published in the “Communications Biology Journal”.

“These findings suggest that anxiety disorders might not be limited to a lack of awareness of the surrounding environment or ignorance of safety. It could also mean that people suffering from anxiety disorders cannot control their feelings and behaviors even if they tried,” Benjamin SuarezJimenez (Ph.D.), assistant professor at Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at Rochester and first author of the study.

He added that patients with anxiety disorders could rationally say “I’m in a safe area” but that their brains were acting as if they were not.

The researchers used MRI to monitor the brain activity in volunteers who had general and/or social anxiety while they played a virtual reality of picking flowers. Half of the meadow was filled with flowers without bees and the other half with bees that would sting them. This was simulated by mild electrical stimulation to one’s hand. Researchers found that all participants could identify the safe and hazardous areas. However, brain scans revealed that volunteers with anxiety had higher insula activation and dorsomedial cortex activation, which indicated that their brain was identifying a safe area as a threat or danger.

“This is the very first time we have looked at discrimination-learning in this way. SuarezJimenez stated that while we are familiar with the brain areas to be focused on, this is the first instance of this concert of activity in a complex’real world-like’ environment.

“These findings point toward the need to treat patients that focus on helping them take back control over their bodies,” he said.

These patients had only seen brain differences. The only difference in these patients was the absence of clear differences in sweat responses, which is a proxy for anxiety.

Suarez-Jimenez’s research focuses on understanding the neural mechanisms that the brain learns about the environment. This includes how the brain predicts what is dangerous and what is safe. To investigate the neural signatures associated with anxiety disorders and post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), he used virtual reality environments. His goal is to understand how people create maps in their brains based on experience and the role that those maps play in anxiety and stress psychopathologies.

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“For next steps in our recent research, it is still necessary to clarify if what was found in these patients’ brains is also true for other disorders like PTSD. He stated that understanding the differences and similarities between disorders characterized in deficits in behavioral regulation, and feelings in safe environments, will help us create better personalized treatments. 

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This story was published without any modifications from a wire agency feed. Only the headline has changed.

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