Anxiety Undermines Good Decision Making, Study Finds

iStock
iStock

For people living with anxiety, decision making can be overwhelming. Now, a recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience has uncovered exactly what’s happening in your brain when you struggle to make a decision in a state of anxiety. 

According to the study, which tested the decision-making skills of anxious rats, anxiety disengages the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a region of the brain that plays an important role in flexible decision making. Researchers injected a mild dose of an anxiety-inducing drug into one group of rats, and a placebo into another, and tested their ability to make decisions in order to reach a reward. At the same time, they monitored the activity of the rats’ PFC to determine exactly how neurons were affected by anxiety. 

Researchers found that both groups of rats performed relatively well in tests. However, any time decision making involved distractions, or the need to ignore unnecessary information, anxious rats began making more wrong choices. Researchers observed numbing of PFC neurons in anxious rats, and believe that this impairment of the PFC is what made it more difficult for the anxious rats to make decisions on the fly. 

A brain locus of vulnerability for these anxiety-induced mistakes was a group of cells in the PFC that specifically coded for choice,” explains researcher Bita Moghaddam. “Anxiety weakened the coding power of these neurons.”

While most of us experience anxiety at some point, chronic anxiety can have a major impact on many aspects of daily life, says Moghaddam. Earlier this month, a study found that people with generalized anxiety disorder were more likely to interpret harmless things as threats. Moghaddam’s work adds to those findings, showing yet another of the subtle, but potentially harmful, effects of anxiety. 

“We have had a simplistic approach to studying and treating anxiety. We have equated it with fear and have mostly assumed that it over-engages entire brain circuits,” explains Moghaddam. “But this study shows that anxiety disengages brain cells in a highly specialized manner.” 

Study Finds One in Seven Danish Children Will Be Diagnosed with Mental Illness

Kerkez/iStock via Getty Images
Kerkez/iStock via Getty Images

As researchers continue to investigate the origins of depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders, a new study in JAMA Psychiatry has found that one in seven children in Denmark will develop some form of mental illness before they turn 18.

The paper, by researchers at Aarhus University and other institutions, looked at a database of health information collected from 1.3 million Danish children from age 0 to 18. Boys had a 15.5 percent chance, and girls a 14.6 percent chance, of being clinically diagnosed with a mental illness before age 18. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was the most common disorder among boys, while anxiety was most prevalent among girls. Depression and schizophrenia were also present.

Researchers also examined when children were diagnosed. Boys tended to be labeled with ADHD as young as 8 years old, while girls received the same diagnosis more frequently at 17. Boys were also diagnosed with other illnesses earlier overall.

The study was limited to Denmark, and socioeconomic factors that may influence ailments and diagnoses can vary by country. Still, researchers said these statistics may help mental health professionals prepare earlier intervention and provide young people the help they need.

[h/t Independent]

First-Ever Map of Titan Reveals That Saturn’s Moon Is a Lot Like Earth

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho

If there's any life in this solar system outside Earth, we likely won't find it on Mars or even on another planet. Saturn's moon Titan is the place in our celestial neighborhood that's most similar to our own home, and it's where scientists think we have one of the best chances of discovering life. Now, as Nature reports, newly visualized data shows just how much Titan has in common with Earth.

Between 2004 and 2017, the NASA spacecraft Cassini performed more than 100 fly-bys of Saturn's moon. Titan is unique in that it's the only moon in the solar system with clouds and a dense, weather-forming atmosphere. This has made it hard to study from space, but by flying close to the surface, Cassini was able to capture the landscape in an unprecedented level of detail.

Map of Titan.
The first global geologic map of Titan.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA's new map of Titan, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, reveals a varied world of mountains, valleys, plains, and sandy dunes that starkly contrast with the desolate wastelands we've seen on neighboring planets. It's also home to seas and lakes, making it the only place in the solar system other than Earth with known bodies of liquid. But instead of water, the pools mottling the moon's surface consist of liquid methane.

Even with its Earth-like geology and atmosphere, chances of finding life on Titan are still slim: Temperatures on the surface average around -300°F. If life does exist there, it's likely limited to microbes in the moon's craters and icy volcanoes.

It will be a while before NASA is able to study Titan up close again: NASA's next drone mission to the body is set for 2034. Until then, scientists have plenty of data recorded by Cassini to teach them more about how the moon formed and continues to change.

[h/t Nature]

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