National Funding Will Support Research on Treatment for Anxiety

Christa McIntyre

Dr. Christa McIntyre-Rodriguez

Two professors in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences  recently received national funding to study the mechanisms behind a proposed new treatment for anxiety disorders.

The National Institute of Mental Health grant will provide $423,000 over the next three years to Dr. Christa McIntyre-Rodriguez and Dr. Sven Kroener to fund their research.

“This grant will enable us to address unresolved questions,” said McIntyre-Rodriguez, principal investigator on the grant. “Previously, we found a method to enhance learning that a formerly dangerous situation is no longer dangerous.

“This could potentially help people to get over emotional traumas and return to a normal, high functioning life – but we don’t fully understand how it works yet.”

Previous work in McIntyre-Rodriguez’s lab showed that using electric pulses to stimulate the vagus nerve during behavioral therapy can reduce a rat’s stress response to reminders of a previously fear-evoking event.

The vagus nerve acts as a conduit for information between the brain and the body. When a person is stressed or frightened, the body releases stress hormones leading to a signal in the brain via the vagus nerve. The brain responds by enhancing memory formation of the stressful event. Normally, this would help warn the person to avoid the stressful situation in the future. In people with anxiety disorders, the response to stress by the vagus nerve is altered and the ability to associate safety with feared environmental cues is impaired.

Sven Kroner

Dr. Sven Kroener

Combining vagus nerve stimulation with a type of behavioral therapy known as fear extinction caused reduced fear responses in rats compared to fear extinction alone.

Kroener is interested in understanding the mechanisms of extinction as it relates to drug addiction. His expertise in researching how memory systems interact through recording cellular responses will assist in this opportunity to learn more about the neural mechanisms involved in using vagus nerve stimulation to eliminate fears.

 “We are very pleased to receive this new funding from NIMH for Dr. McIntyre-Rodriguez and Dr. Kroener's exciting work on possible pathways for modifying maladaptive emotional learning,” said Dr. Bert Moore, dean of the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and the Aage and Margareta Møller Distinguished Professor. “Their research is exemplary of our commitment to better understanding the brain in service to improving people's lives.”

The grant supports four undergraduate and two graduate students to work with McIntyre-Rodriguez and Kroener.

“With this grant, our students will help us examine the mechanisms of how vagus nerve stimulation causes the reduction of pathological fears,” said McIntyre-Rodriguez. “We also expect these findings to shed light on the way conditioned fears are naturally overcome.”

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Tagged: BBS research