A new study used a virtual reality environment to understand the impact of anxiety on the brain and how it shapes our behavior. The results of the study were published in the journal ‘Communications Biology’.
The researchers used a virtual reality environment where volunteers were in a meadow picking flowers. They knew some flowers are harmless, while others have a bee inside that will sting them. “These results tell us that anxiety disorders could be more than a lack of awareness of the environment or ignorance of safety, but rather that people with an anxiety disorder cannot control their feelings and even their behavior. if they wanted to, “said Benjamin Suarez. Jimenez, PhD, assistant professor at the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester and first author of the study.
“Patients with an anxiety disorder could rationally say – I’m in a safe space – but we found their brains behaving as if they weren’t,” Suarez-Jimenez said. Using fMRI, the researchers observed the brain activity of volunteers with general and social anxiety as they navigated a virtual reality game of picking flowers. Half of the meadow had flowers without bees, the other half had flowers with bees that would sting them – as simulated by a slight electrical stimulation of the hand.
The researchers found that all study participants could distinguish between safe and unsafe areas, however, brain scans found anxious volunteers increased activation of the insula and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex – indicating that their brain associated a known safe area with the danger or threat. “This is the first time that we have looked at learning to discriminate in this way. We know which areas of the brain to examine, but this is the first time that we have shown this concert of activity in an environment as complex as the real world. “said Suarez-Jimenez.
“These results indicate the need for treatments aimed at helping patients regain control of their bodies,” added Suarez-Jimenez. Brain differences were the only differences observed in these patients. For example, responses to sweat, an indicator of anxiety, which was also measured, revealed no clear difference.
Suarez-Jimenez’s research focuses on understanding the neural mechanisms by which the brain learns about the environment, particularly how the brain predicts what is threatening and what is safe. He uses virtual reality environments to study the neural signatures of anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His goal is to understand how people construct maps in the brain based on experience and the role of these maps in stress and anxiety psychopathologies.
“For the next steps in this recent research, we still need to clarify whether what we found in the brains of these patients is also the case in other disorders, such as PTSD. Understanding the differences and similarities between disorders characterized by behavioral regulation deficits and feelings in safe environments, can help us create more personalized treatment options, ”Suarez-Jimenez concluded. (ANI)
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