Is This Molecule The Secret To Calming Anxiety & Panic?

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Anxiety affects more than 18% of the U.S. population every single year. And yet, we still haven't found a great long-term solution to this mental health disorder, which includes anything from generalized anxiety disorder to panic attacks to social anxiety disorder.

That's why a new study, showing how a single molecule in the brain can change the way we respond to outside threats, is catching our attention.

The research, conducted by scientists from the University of California and the University of Wisconsin-Madison identified a molecule called neurotrophin-3, which as it turns out, affects whether or not we interpret situations as threatening.

The inspiration for this study, which was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, came from research the same team completed almost a decade ago showing alterations in areas of the brain responsible for our emotional response to outside situations. After this discovery, the researchers hypothesized that changes in this part of the brain could be the root cause of early-life anxiety. Only years later were they able to narrow these changes down to the molecule neurotrophin-3, which they decided to study in more depth.

The results of this most recent research showed that when levels of neurotrophin-3 were boosted in the brains of Rhesus macaque—a type of monkey also known as the Old World monkey—a decrease in anxiety-related behaviors was also observed. The scientist also took images of the animals' brains and observed changes in areas that play a known role in anxiety. This makes neurotrophin-3 the first molecule to have an established "cause and effect" relationship with anxiety in nonhuman primates.

This research could represent a whole new way to combat the debilitating symptoms of anxiety. "These disorders are also some of the leading causes of disability and days lost to disability," said Andrew Fox, a professor at U.C.–Davis Department of Psychology. Future research could be centered on how to increase levels of this molecule through dietary and lifestyle changes, herbs and supplements, and, of course, pharmaceutical drugs.

And it doesn't end with neurotrophin-3, either. As Fox explained, "We're only just beginning. It's one of potentially many molecules that could have this effect. There could be hundreds or even thousands more."

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