New Study Finds Brain Cells That May Protect You From Anxiety & OCD

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Despite making fabulous strides toward open conversations surrounding mental health, 40 million American adults still experience some form of anxiety disorder. While environmental stressors can be a factor in triggering anxiety, a new study zeroes in on brain cells that protect the brain from anxiety, which may improve the treatment of anxiety disorders in the future.

Published in the journal Cell Reports, scientists found a class of brain cells associated with OCD-related anxiety. An imbalance of these cells, named Hoxb8-lineage microglia, resulted in striking OCD behaviors

How can mice have OCD, you ask? The researchers noticed how the mice with disabled Hoxb8 had excessive grooming behavior, which looked pretty similar to the type of OCD in humans that causes some people to excessively pluck out their own hair.  

Scientists always knew that this group of brain cells was important (Hoxb8-lineage microglia makes up about 30% of all microglia in the brain, according to the study), but until now, no one knew whether the connection between these cells had any unique function. In fact, the leader of the study had previously tested whether disabling these brain cells could have an effect on development. But he found no correlation between these cells and cognitive development—until he noticed their excessive grooming. 

"We didn't really know what to make of the fact that mice without Hoxb8 appear so normal, until we noticed that they groom significantly more and longer than what would be considered healthy. And that's how the whole thing started," said senior author of the study, Mario Capecchi, Ph.D. 

It makes total sense: People who suffer from OCD-related anxiety don't necessarily have any impairment to their cognitive development, yet they experience these uncomfortable, sometimes debilitating, anxious symptoms

While the brain's role in anxiety might sound obvious, this experiment is actually the first of its kind to study how the imbalance of certain brain cells protects against anxiety rather than causes it. Previous research has shown that cells can release substances that may harm neurons, but it's the dysfunction of this cell group that causes the OCD-related anxiety. 

"Researchers have long suspected that microglia have a role in anxiety and neuropsychological disorders in humans because this cell type can release substances that may harm neurons. So, we were surprised to find that microglia actually protect from anxiety, they don't cause it," co-lead author Dimitri Traenkner, adds. 

While this research by no means offers a cure for anxiety (we still have a long way to go before chronic stress is truly a thing of the past), it lays the foundation for how we can treat anxiety-related conditions. Traenkner says, "It's not that we discovered how to fix anxiety in humans, but we constructed a platform for the discovery of new drugs against anxiety." 

Before we develop medications that target this brain cell dysfunction, your best bet is to continue your personal routine for chronic stress (whatever works best for you!). Whether you respond well to therapy, prescriptions, regular meditation, or something else entirely, remember that you have the power to take control of your anxiety.

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