'Switching off' certain brain cells may boost stress, anxiety response, study finds
Researchers in Japan have identified specific cells in the brain that may govern human stress response, they say in a new study. Photo by stevedimatteo/Pixabay

March 18 (UPI) -- People seeking relief from stress may find it by "switching off" specific brain cells, researchers at Osaka University in Japan said in an article published Friday by Science Advances.

In experiments with mice, the researchers identified a group of brain cells that control anxiety-related behaviors, they said.

The cells are found in the claustrum of the brain, a thin region that connects the prefrontal cortex and the thalamus, or the areas involved in attention, perception, awareness, thought, memory, language and consciousness, according to the researchers.

When these cells were activated using chemogenetic technology, or drugs designed to stimulate them, the mice exhibited anxiety-related behaviors, the researchers said.

However, deactivation of the cells made mice more resilient in response to chronic stress, they said.

This means the cells in the claustrum could serve as a treatment target for drugs designed to manage anxiety-related conditions, the researchers said.

"Inactivation of stress-responsive claustrum [brain cells] can serve as at least a partially preventative measure for the emergence of depression-like behavior," study co-author Hitoshi Hashimoto said in a press release.

It can also "increase resilience to emotional stress," said Hashimoto, a professor of molecular neuropharmacology at Osaka University.

Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious psychiatric problems, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

However, many of the ways in which these disorders develop, and what governs the human stress response, remains unknown, though studies suggest the processing of stress relies on the communication between cortical and subcortical regions of the brain, the Japanese researchers said.

The key to their discovery was the use of block-face serial microscopy tomography, sometimes called FAST, which was developed by researchers at Osaka University, the researchers said.

The technology allowed them to examine changes in cellular activity at the resolution of a single cell, they said.

Using the FAST technique, the researchers collected whole-brain images of control mice and mice exposed to stressful conditions.

Of the 22 brain regions studied, the claustrum was identified as a key region that differentiated stressed brains from non-stressed brains, the researchers said.

"A combined approach using brain activation mapping and machine learning showed that the claustrum activation serves as a reliable marker of exposure to acute stressors," study co-author Misaki Niu, a researcher at Osaka University, said in a press release.

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