Virtual reality was used by a team of researchers to study the effects anxiety has on the brain, and how brain regions interact to influence behaviour.
The study has been published in the ‘Communications Biology Journal’. “These findings tell us that anxiety disorders might be more than a lack of awareness of the environment or ignorance of safety, but rather that individuals suffering from an anxiety disorder cannot control their feelings and behavior even if they wanted to,” said Benjamin Suarez-Jimenez, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester and first author of the study.
“The patients with an anxiety disorder could rationally say — I’m in a safe space — but we found their brain was behaving as if it was not,” he added.
The researchers used fMRI to observe the brain activity of volunteers who had general anxiety and social anxiety while they played a virtual reality game of picking flower. Half of the meadow had flowers without bees, the other half had flowers with bees that would sting them — as simulated by a mild electrical stimulation to the hand. Researchers found all study participants could distinguish between the safe and dangerous areas, however, brain scans revealed volunteers with anxiety had increased insula and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex activation — indicating that their brain was associating a known safe area to danger or threat.
“This is the first time we’ve looked at discrimination learning in this way. We know what brain areas to look at, but this is the first time we show this concert of activity in such a complex ‘real-world-like’ environment,” said Suarez-Jimenez.
“These findings point towards the need for treatments that focus on helping patients take back control of their body,” he added.
These patients only had brain differences. The only difference in these patients was the absence of clear differences in sweat responses, which is a proxy for anxiety.
Understanding the neural mechanisms by which the brain learned about the environment is the focus of Suarez-Jimenez’s research, particularly how the brain predicted what is threatening and what is safe. To study neural signatures of anxiety disorders (PTSD) and post-traumatic stress disorder, he used virtual reality environments. His goal was to understand how people construct maps of the brain based on their experience and the role of these maps in psychopathologies related to stress and anxiety.
“For next steps in this recent research, we still need to clarify if what we found in the brain of these patients is also the case in other disorders, such as PTSD. Understanding the differences and similarities across disorders characterized by deficits in behavioral regulation and feelings in safe environments, can help us create better personalized treatment options,” he said.