Researchers learning more about how anxiety and depression develop

UW-Madison researchers have discovered previously unknown pathways in the brain that could lead to new therapies for anxiety disorders.

This discovery sheds light on the underlying brain changes that go along with the development of anxiety and depression.  

The study was published Monday in the Journal of Neuroscience, with funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center.

It was led in part by Ned Kalin, a professor of psychiatry, who used imaging techniques to examine the brains of hundreds of monkeys with varying levels of anxiousness.

In humans, extreme anxiety experienced early in life has been correlated with anxiety disorders and depression later in life. Kalin and fellow researchers are using what they’ve learned in monkey brains to shape companion studies on anxiety in human children.

“We are continuing to discover the brain circuits that underlie human anxiety, especially the alterations in circuit function that underlie the early childhood risk to develop anxiety and depressive disorders,” Kalin said.

Kalin and his colleagues found that connectivity between two specific regions of the amygdala — a part of the brain regulating emotion — is associated with anxious temperament in young rhesus macaque monkeys.

“In data from a species closely related to humans, these findings strongly point to alterations in human brain function that contribute to the level of an individual’s anxiety,” he said. “Most importantly these findings are highly relevant to children with pathological anxiety and hold the promise to guide the development of new treatment approaches.”

Jonathan Oler, the co-lead author for the study, says findings from this study and other previous research at UW-Madison have led to a deeper understanding of the brain regions involved.

“This study speaks to how important it is to study animals that are related to humans as they allow us to learn about the causes of human anxiety and by so doing we can potentially develop better treatment and hopefully prevention strategies,” Oler said.

This analysis will be used to guide further studies at the Kalin lab, which will examine genetic changes in the brain regions associated with anxiety. These could lead to new treatments aimed at the cause of anxiety, rather than just the symptoms, according to a UW-Madison release.