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UQ researchers tackle emotions head on – at the cellular level


University of Queensland researchers have identified a protein that is crucially involved in how our memories are stored and processed, paving the way for new strategies to treat conditions certain mental disorders.

Dr Louise Faber and Professor Pankaj Sah, from UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), have been studying how cells in the brain form memories.

"What we were looking at in particular is how the memory of emotions, such as fear and anxiety, are laid down," Dr Faber said.

Professor Sah said the way strong emotions can effect our memories can be described by picturing a scene of someone sitting on a train listening to a piece of music.

"If that person is then subjected to a horrible tragedy such as a train crash, then the next time they hear that song it can bring back, in very vivid detail, that event and all the negative emotions associated with the crash," Professor Sah said.

Dr Faber said the part of the brain they were looking at was the amygdala, which mediates emotion and is believed to be the source of some mental disorders when the way information is processed malfunctions.

"In particular, fearful memories that underlie disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety are thought to be mediated by long term changes in the strength of connections between cells in the amygdala," Dr Faber said.

"We found a particular protein is crucially involved in regulating information processing and storage in the amygdala.

"When we blocked this protein with a specific blocker, the strength of connections between cells was greatly enhanced."

Dr Faber said the implications of this work could lead to developing novel strategies to treat mental disorders mediated by the amygdala, such as panic attacks, post traumatic stress disorder anxiety and depression.

The researchers’ work was recently published in the highly prestigious scientific journal Nature Neuroscience.

The QBI is home to leading researchers in neural stem cell research and are currently conducting research into finding ways to stimulate the production of new functional nerve cells to overcome diseases such as dementia (particularly Alzheimer’s disease), stroke, motor neuron disease, head and spinal cord injury, addiction and mental health.

Andrew Dunne | EurekAlert!
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