Story at a glance
- Different parts of the brain can get activated depending on a person's environment.
- Neuroscientists have some understanding about what areas of the brain may be activated when people feel they are in danger or if there’s a threat.
- A study finds that these areas are activated in the brains of people with anxiety even when they are experiencing a safe environment.
When you are in a safe environment, your brain picks up on those cues. Similarly, when you are in a dangerous environment, your brain may activate in areas that are associated with danger. But new research suggests that even in a safe environment, people with an anxiety disorder may still feel like there’s a threat.
A group of researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at people’s brains when they were experiencing virtual reality environments. The participants were able to distinguish between safe and dangerous areas.
The brain scans revealed that people with anxiety had increased brain activity in areas that were associated with danger or threat even when in a virtual environment that was deemed safe.
“These findings tell us that anxiety disorders might be more than a lack of awareness of the environment or ignorance of safety, but rather that individuals suffering from an anxiety disorder cannot control their feelings and behavior even if they wanted to,” said Benjamin Suarez-Jimenez, an assistant professor in the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester, in a press release. “The patients with an anxiety disorder could rationally say -- I'm in a safe space -- but we found their brain was behaving as if it was not.”
The areas of the brain that got activated in people with anxiety were the insula and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex.
“We know what brain areas to look at, but this is the first time we show this concert of activity in such a complex 'real-world-like' environment,” said Suarez-Jimenez. “These findings point towards the need for treatments that focus on helping patients take back control of their body.”
Future work could investigate if the brain is activated in similar ways in the brains of people with other disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder. The goal would be to understand the differences and similarities in how people experience safe environments so that they can create personalized treatment options, Suarez-Jimenez said.
READ MORE STORIES FROM CHANGING AMERICA