Soon, a pill to combat stress

Scientists have identified a brain mechanism that turns fear into overwhelming anxiety.

Updated: Apr 21, 2011, 15:47 PM IST

London: Scientists have identified a brain
mechanism that turns fear into overwhelming anxiety or
depression, a discovery which they say could soon lead to the
development of a pill that will keep stress at bay.

The research by a team at the Leicester University in the
UK was inspired by the observation that while many people
experience traumatic events, only some descend into depression
or other stress-linked psychiatric disorders.

During experiments on mice, the researchers identified a
protein, called neuropsin, which is made in the amygdala, the
brain`s "fear centre".

In times of stress, it was found that the brain makes
more neuropsin which triggers a series of chemical reactions
that culminate in a "fear gene" being switched on, and the
feelings of anxiety.

When the protein was blocked, the researchers found that
it stopped the animals from displaying anxiety in stressful
situations, a newspaper reported.

Developing drugs that target the neuropsin biological
pathway could provide new treatments for post-traumatic stress
disorder and other anxiety conditions, the researchers said.

Lead scientist Dr Robert Pawlak said: "Our discovery
opens up new possibilities for the prevention and treatment of
stress-related psychiatric disorders such as depression and
post-traumatic stress disorder."

He said: "Studies in mice revealed that upon feeling
stressed, they stayed away from zones in a maze where they
felt unsafe.

"These were open and illuminated spaces they avoid when
they are anxious.

"However, when the proteins produced by the amygdala were
blocked the mice did not exhibit the same trait. The
behavioural consequences of stress were no longer present.

"We conclude that the activity of neuropsin and its
partners may determine vulnerability to stress."

Although the experiments were in mice, the researchers
are optimistic that the protein also affects how the human
brain copes with life`s troubles and the new findings could
lead to pills that quash such stress-related conditions before
they arise.

Though they "are tremendously excited by these findings",
Dr Pawlak cautioned that much more research is necessary.
He said: "We know that all the members of the neuropsin
pathway are present in the human brain.

"They may play a similar role in humans and further
research will be necessary to examine the potential of
therapies for controlling stress-related behaviours," he said.

According to the researchers, who reported their study in
the journal Nature, stress-related disorders affect a large
percentage of the population and generate enormous personal,
social and economic impact.

And around one in five people experiences some form of
anxiety disorder during their life, they said.

PTI