Brain Facts

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Since scientists discovered the mechanism by which benzodiazepines act to alleviate anxiety, all the evidence has indicated that the neurotransmitter GABA and its receptors play a fundamental role in controlling anxiety.

After benzodiazepines are ingested, they bind to a specific site on the GABA receptor. The presence of benzodiazepine on this site potentiates the effect of the GABA, further diminishing the brain hyperactivity associated with anxiety.

As happens with many drugs, some endogenous molecules analogous to benzodiazepines have been isolated in the brain. These molecules appear to be a natural means of adjusting the neuron-inhibiting action of GABA.

Various aspects of anxiety also seem to be influenced by other systems of neurotransmitters. Many laboratories are investigating the role of serotonin in particular. This molecule, produced mainly in the Raphe nuclei in the brainstem, is known for its modulating effect on appetite, sleep, mood, libido, and cognitive functions. All of these functions are disturbed by anxiety.

The hypothesis that serotonin plays a role in anxiety is also supported by the close connections between this neurotransmitter and the locus coeruleus, the centre of norepinephrine production in the brain, which has very dense projections to the amygdala. In fact, the serotonin and norepinephrine systems are so closely bound together by numerous reciprocal connections that a modification in one inevitably affects the other.

It is also known that the effect of norepinephrine on the amygdala’s beta-adrenergic receptors causes emotionally charged events to be recorded more permanently in memory.

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