LONDON, November 3, 2010 /PRNewswire/ -- Researchers from King's College London, in partnership with AXA, have initially identified the neural pathways that control peace of mind in the human brain. The research project could lead to the development of new therapies in the treatment of anxiety disorders and depression.

Preliminary results indicate the important role of the hippocampus(1) (a part of the brain located inside the medial temporal lobe, beneath the cortical surface) in controlling anxiety and risk assessment during exposure to a threatening situation, potentially revealing how it affects peace of mind. The hippocampus was previously thought to be primarily associated only with long-term memory and spatial awareness: it may also play an important role in controlling the tendency to worry.

The study is being carried out by scientists from the Centre for Neuroimaging Sciences at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College and aims to identify the precise brain systems that control anxiety and fear in humans by measuring brain activation in normal healthy volunteers as they react to a perceived threat. Previous results using questionnaires suggest that individuals with higher levels of underlying anxiety tend to exaggerate potential threats, resulting in them being unable to react appropriately to dangerous situations.

This phenomenon is known as 'behavioural inhibition' and this is the first time it has been examined using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) where participants are chased by real and perceived threats on a Joystick Operated Runway Task (JORT) - a PacMan-style video game that is played inside the scanner - developed by Dr Adam Perkins who leads the project, under the direction of Professor Stephen Williams.

This study is unique because it investigates for the first time the role of the human hippocampus in a realistic risk assessment situation using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. These are very exciting results and could lead to the development of new therapies in the treatment of generalised anxiety disorders focusing on the hippocampus, explains Professor Williams, Professor of Neuroimaging at King's College London.

Dr Adam Perkins, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Neuroimaging at King's College London added: Anxiety and fear were once thought of as wholly learned disease states however it is now widely suspected they are useful responses to threat that help keep the individual away from trouble. In this project we are aiming to verify whether or not this is also the case in humans and this could help us understand the brain systems that control anxiety and fear.

AXA is pleased to support research that will improve understanding of anxiety, fear and peace of mind, explains Eugene Farrell, AXA Head of Psychological Health and Wellbeing.

These feelings are of course an essential part of human experience but, if they are over expressed or become persistent, can contribute to debilitating conditions such as mild to general anxiety disorder, moderate depression and panic disorder, which can adversely affect people's ability to function normally.

Indeed, psychological problems are one of the main causes of long term sickness absence in the UK and, according to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, are estimated to cost the UK economy around GBP26bn in staff absence, reduced productivity and labour turnover.(2)

To investigate levels of positive or negative feeling across Britain, AXA has also commissioned a consumer survey using the respected PANAS scale (Positive and Negative Affect Schedule). Findings show that the public in general are feeling significantly less positive about life than in 2007 when the last norms were published: the average score for positive affect among 2000 people was 16.03 on the scale, which is significantly lower than the last published average positive score for the UK at 19.48 (with a variance of + 2.89).

In the survey, a loving relationship was found to be the most important factor in creating long-term peace of mind (65%) with a secure job and having money in savings following with 45% and 41% respectively. The largest contributors to anxiety were job or career concerns (44%), people's personal financial situation (43%) and specifically debt (33%). Nearly a quarter (23%) said the government's spending cuts are in their top three concerns.

1. The hippocampus is a paired structure, with mirror-image halves in the left and right sides of the brain, the hippocampus is located inside the medial temporal lobe, beneath the cortical surface. It contains two main interlocking parts: Ammon's horn and the dentate gyrus.

2. Mental health at work: developing the business case, Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health policy paper 8, 2007.


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