People plagued with the uncomfortable thoughts and sensations characteristic of anxiety disorders may have a small group of cells in the brain to blame, according to a new study. As NPR reports, a team of researchers has identified a class of brain cells that regulates anxiety levels in mice.

The paper, published in the journal Neuron, is based on experiments conducted on a group of lab mice. As is the case with human brains, the hippocampus in mouse brains is associated with fear and anxiety. But until now, researchers didn't know which neurons in the hippocampus were responsible for feelings of worry and impending danger.

To pinpoint the cells at work, scientists from Columbia University, the University of California, San Francisco, and other institutions placed mice in a maze with routes leading to open areas. Mice tend to feel anxious in spacious environments, so researchers monitored activity in the hippocampus when they entered these parts of the maze. What the researchers saw was a specialized group of cells lighting up when the mice entered spaces meant to provoke anxiety.

To test if anxiety was really the driving factor behind the response, they next used a technique called optogenetics to control these cells. When they lowered the cells' activity, the mice seemed to relax and wanted to explore the maze. But as they powered the cells back up, the mice grew scared and didn't venture too far from where they were.

Anxiety is an evolutionary mechanism everyone experiences from time to time, but for a growing portion of the population, anxiety levels are debilitating. Generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder can stem from a combination of factors, but most experts agree that overactive brain chemistry plays a part. Previous studies have connected anxiety disorders to several parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which governs memory as well as fear and worry.

By uncovering not just how the brain produces symptoms of anxiety but the individual cells behind them, scientists hope to get closer to a better treatment. There's more work to be done before that becomes a possibility. The anxiety cells in mice aren't necessarily a perfect indicator of which cells regulate anxiety in humans, and if a new treatment does eventually come from the discovery, it will be one of many options rather than a cure-all for every patient with the disorder.

[h/t NPR]