New Research Hopes to Rid Brain of Anxiety

New resereach on goldfish, rats and humans could help cure anxiety disorders.

ByABC News
March 24, 2010, 4:31 PM

March 25, 2010— -- Getting on an airplane, lying still in an MRI machine or even public speaking can paralyze Helen Resneck-Sannes' patients, whose arousal systems are in full-fear mode.

"They take beta blockers or valium and it really doesn't stop the fear," the Santa Cruz, Calif., psychologist said. "The next time they are on the airplane or speaking or claustrophobic, they are still afraid."

Drugs to treat those who suffer from phobias and anxiety disorders have been used for decades with some success, but there is still no medical silver bullet for those who are irrationally afraid or traumatized.

Just this week, scientists at the University of Hiroshima in Japan found a way to switch off the fear center in the brain by injecting a shot of lidocaine, an anesthetic, to the brain -- of goldfish, that is.

The brains of goldfish share many similarities with those of mammals, including humans, according to researchers, who hope to understand more about biological and chemical processes that cause humans to be afraid.

"I think it would be great if someone needs to get an MRI if you could give them a shot of lidocaine," said Resneck, who wrote the 2002 book, "There Really Is Something to Be Afraid Of: Treatment of Panic Disorder."

"On the other hand, if you can find out the reasons for the claustrophobia, it would be better," she said. "But in an emergency, that would be a really good idea."

Fear is the most primal of all emotions, the lynchpin of the "fight or flight" response that protects human beings against danger. But in about 40 million Americans, that mechanism is out of control.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting about 18 percent of the population, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA).

Only about one third of those who are suffering receive treatment, which is usually a combination of drugs and behavioral therapies. They are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders, according to the ADAA.

Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality and life events.