Brain Facts

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Mechanics of the processes of anxiety in the brain

While psychologists debate the causes of separation and other anxiety disorders, neuroscientists have made appreciable headway into the mechanics of the processes of anxiety in the brain.

All anxiety is of a kind, according to Joseph LeDoux, professor at the Center for Neural Science at New York University. Anxiety elicits what is known as the stress response, which releases a group of neurotransmitters called catecholamines (dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine) into the central nervous system. Catecholamines, says Amy Arnsten, associate professor of neurobiology at Yale University Medical School, effectively “‘turn on’ our heart muscles and ‘turn off’ the stomach to prepare for ‘fight or flight’ responses.”

Interestingly, these same neurotransmitters, says Arnsten, “may turn on a structure called the amygdala (the brain region that is responsible for fear), and turn off the prefrontal cortex (the brain region where thinking occurs), allowing posterior cortical and subcortical structures to control our behavior.” In other words, under these conditions, we stop being rational and are only emotional?in this case, fearful.

And fear affects memory. J. Douglas Bremner, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University’s medical center, has done extensive research during the last decade into the effects of stress on the hippocampus, the region of the brain most widely associated with conscious memory and learning. Using MRI imaging, he has observed that the hippocampus of survivors of trauma?for example war veterans, and survivors of childhood abuse?has shrunk. These patients, according to LeDoux, “exhibit significant deficits in memory ability, without any loss in IQ or other cognitive functions.”

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