University of Vermont

Research and Animal Welfare

Providing New Hope for People with Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety used to be understood only as a product of fear, within the limited context of negative emotions. Now, a cross-disciplinary team of UVM researchers — spanning the departments of Neurobiology, Psychology and Chemistry — is investigating a key region of the brain and their work holds great promise for people affected by anxiety disorders.

How are they doing this?

The research team is using rats to understand the impact of a sometimes-neurotransmitter called pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating peptide, or PACAP, in a little-studied region of the brain — the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis. Already the scientists have been able to block anxiety behaviors in rats through the use of a series of small organic molecules that block PACAP. Their goal: to find the first truly targeted medications for chronic anxiety diseases from anorexia to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Why are animals important?

Anxiety expresses itself in a wide range of behaviors. The complexity of the neurologic systems controlling these behaviors is not yet understood well enough to model anxiety in a non-living system, such as a computer. Although some research on anxiety actually uses human subjects, utilizing animals allows researchers to control for a host of environmental factors (such as diet, light cycle, temperature) which are not easily controlled using human patients. Even the genetic variables associated with anxiety can be better controlled in laboratory animals, which have been bred for many generations to minimize the genetic differences between individuals.

What are the significant outcomes of this research?

Anxiety disorders can be debilitating, making it difficult for sufferers to hold a job or to have a fulfilling personal life. Developing treatments which can specifically target the neurologic mediators of anxiety would allow many patients to resume happy and productive lives. In addition, understanding the role of PACAP in anxiety may help identify people who are at greater risk for developing anxiety disorders.

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