Treatments for mood and anxiety disorders are thought to work, in part, by helping patients control the stresses in their lives. A new study in rats by National Institutes of Health (NIH) grantees provides insight into the brain mechanisms likely involved. When it deems a stressor controllable, an executive hub in the front of the brain quells an alarm center deep in the brainstem, preventing the adverse behavioral and physiological effects of uncontrollable stress.
"Its as if the prefrontal cortex says: Cool it, brainstem! We have control over this and there is no need to get so excited," quipped Steven Maier, Ph.D., University of Colorado, whose study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Maier and colleagues posted their findings online in Nature Neuroscience, February 6, 2005.
Lack of control over stressful life experiences has been implicated in mood and anxiety disorders. Rats exposed to uncontrollable stress develop learned helplessness, a syndrome similar to depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They lose the ability to learn how to escape stressors. Activation of a brainstem area (dorsal raphe nucleus) has been implicated in such reactions. But this area is too small and lacks the proper sensory inputs to judge whether a stressor is controllable. Many of its inputs come conspicuously from the mid-prefrontal cortex area (medial prefrontal cortex), seat of higher order functions, such as problem-solving and learning from experience. These signals are sent via the chemical messenger serotonin, which is involved in mood regulation and in mediating the effects of the most widely prescribed antidepressants. The medial prefrontal cortex has also been implicated as the source of an "all clear" signal that quells fear in rats.*
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