Neuron growth protein could treat anxiety

Amy Barrett’s article on BBC Science Focus reports on research about increasing levels of neurotrophin-3 which reduces anxiety-related behaviours in monkeys. August 2019.

A protein which triggers the growth of new neurons in the brain has been linked to reducing anxiety, a team of US researchers has found. The molecule, called neurotrophin-3, was found to stimulate neurons to grow and connect within the dorsal amygdala – an area of the brain involved in emotional responses. An increase in levels of neurotrophin-3 decreased behaviours associated with anxiety.

To make the finding, the team selected a group of young rhesus macaques who displayed signs of ‘dispositional anxiety’– the tendency to feel unduly anxious, or perceive many situations as threatening. They were able to identify neurotrophin-3 as one of the molecules related to this type of anxiety, and found that when levels of the protein were increased within the dorsal amygdala, the anxiety of the macaques decreased.

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“Neurotrophin-3 is the first molecule that we’ve been able to show in a non-human primate to be causally related to anxiety,” said Andrew Fox, co-author of the study and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at University of California, Davis. “It’s one of potentially many molecules that could have this affect. There could be hundreds or even thousands more.”

It is estimated that some 3 million people in the UK have an anxiety disorder, and more than one in ten of us are likely to have a disabling anxiety-related condition in our lifetime.

“These disorders are also some of the leading causes of disability and days lost to disability,” said Fox.

Currently, patients are offered a range of treatments to control their anxiety, including therapy, medication and self-help techniques – but there are as of yet no guaranteed routes to overcoming the disorder.

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