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Lowering Brain's pH Treats Anxiety in Rats

Update Date: Feb 25, 2014 06:41 PM EST

Lowering the brain's pH may treat anxiety disorders, according to a new study.

The latest research on animals reveals that increasing acidity in the brain's emotional control center reduces anxiety.

Researchers said the latest findings point to a new target for treating anxiety disorders, which are characterized by the lack of ability to control feelings of fear and uncertainty.  Previous studies have linked anxiety disorders to heightened activity in the basolateral amygdala (BLA), a brain region that plays a central role in emotional behavior.

Researchers said that many cells in the basolateral amygdala posses acid-sensing ion channels called ASIC1a, which respond to pH changes in the environment outside of the cell.

Experiments revealed that activating these acid-sensing ion channels decreased the activity of nearby cells and reduced anxiety-like behavior in animals. Researchers said the findings supports previous evidence linking ASIC1a to anxiety.

For the study, researchers soaked BLA cells in an acidic solution in the laboratory and measured the signals sent to nearby cells. Researchers found that increasing the acidity or lowering the pH of the solution decreased activity of cells in the BLA.

The study also found that activating ASIC1a impacted behavior. Researchers said that rats displayed more anxiety-like behavior when they were given a drug that blocks ASIC1a directly into the BLA. However, rats given a drug that increased the activity of ASIC1a channels in the BLA showed less anxiety-like behavior.

"Our study emphasizes the importance of identifying and elucidating mechanisms involved in the regulation of brain function for the development of more efficacious therapies for treating psychiatric and neurological illnesses," lead researcher Maria Braga, DDS, PhD, of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine, said in a news release.

"These findings suggest that activating these channels, specifically in fear-related areas such as the amygdala, may be a key to regulating anxiety," Anantha Shekhar, MD, PhD, who studies panic disorders at Indiana University and was not involved in this study, said in a news release. "Developing specific drugs that can stimulate these channels could provide a new way to treat anxiety and fear disorders such a post-traumatic stress and panic disorders."

Researchers noted "more research is needed to understand the roles that ASIC1a channels play in the brain."

The findings are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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