At the cellular level, anxiety disorders are associated with heightened activity in the basolateral amygdala (BLA) in the brain which is known to play a central role in emotional behaviour.

Many cells in the BLA possess acid-sensing ion channels called 'ASIC1a' that respond to pH changes in the environment outside of the cell. Maria Braga and colleagues at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences - a health science university run by US federal government - found that activating 'ASIC1a' decreased the activity of nearby cells and reduced anxiety-like behaviour in animals.

"It suggests that activating these channels, specifically in fear-related areas such as amygdala, may be a key to regulating anxiety,” explained Anantha Shekhar from Indiana University who was not involved in this study.

"Developing specific drugs that can stimulate these channels could provide a new way to treat anxiety and fear disorders such a post-traumatic stress and panic disorders," she stated.

To determine the effect, Braga's group bathed BLA cells in an acidic solution in the laboratory and measured the signals sent to nearby cells. Lowering the pH of the solution decreased the activity of cells in BLA. When rats received a drug designed to increase the activity of ASIC1a channels, the animals displayed less anxiety-like behaviour.

"Our study emphasizes the importance of identifying mechanisms involved in the regulation of brain function for the development of more efficacious therapies for treating psychiatric and neurological illnesses," Braga noted.

Anxiety disorders, which are characterized by an inability to control feelings of fear and uncertainty, are the most prevalent group of psychiatric diseases, concluded the study published in Journal of Neuroscience.


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