Texas A&M scientist receives $2.8 million grant to study brain’s connection to anxiety disorders

Published: Oct. 14, 2021 at 1:40 AM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - A Texas A&M brain scientist and his team received a $2.8 million dollar grant that will support their research in finding out more about how the brain contributes to anxiety disorders, especially PTSD.

The team is led by Texas A&M distinguished professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Studies Stephen Maren. He says they’re really interested in how the brain stores memories of fear and how people can suppress them.

“It seems like one of the parts of the brain that may be particularly important for suppressing fear is kind of at the front of the brain. It’s called the prefrontal cortex,” Maren said. “It’s a part of the brain that’s really important in decision-making and what are generally termed executive processes, but we think it’s also kind of important for emotional regulation.”

Maren says people may be able to practice and get better at regulating emotion. He says this may not necessarily eliminate unwanted fears or prevent PTSD symptoms, but it may be part of the therapeutic process of making that part of the brain work the way it should.

The team is trying to understand if they can make neurons in those parts of the brain work more effectively to dampen the severity of these conditions.

”In situations where people might be inclined to remember or re-experience fear memories or memories of trauma, that if we accelerate that part of the brain from preventing relapse from happening, we can kind of dampen that activity and keep the fear at bay,” Maren said.

One of the major discoveries Maren says he and his team has made recently is a region in the brain deep within the thalamus that seems to allow the prefrontal cortex to talk to another part of the brain called the hippocampus where memories are stored.

“This is part of the brain that allows you to remember what you had for breakfast, who you played tennis with last, and other things including emotional memories,” Maren said. “We think there’s this hub that controls the flow of information and allows the cortex to potentially influence what’s retrieved and not retrieved from memory, or what might even be suppressed. We think that might be critical in this whole balance of do you remember or not remember the fearful events, or even suppress it to prevent relapse.”

They hope their work will provide others with the information they need to create new and improved therapies.

“We’re still some time off before we imagine those outcomes,” Maren said. “I like to compare it to the mRNA work that was done for decades before suddenly we realized that science was really important for the development of COVID vaccines.”

Maren says one of their core interests are to alleviate suffering associated with psychiatric disease. He says the brain areas they’re studying are particularly important for disorders of fear and anxiety, especially PTSD.

“We really believe that by understanding how this all works at a cellular level in the brain, we can ultimately bring that information to the clinic and help people who are really suffering, and not only individuals, but families and communities,” Maren said.

Copyright 2021 KBTX. All rights reserved.