According to a study published two days ago in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers discovered a mechanism for how anxiety may impact decision-making. They noted that anxiety disengages the region of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is critical for flexible decision-making. Think of the PFC as the CEO of our brain. This is the area that helps us get tasks done.
In this study, researchers monitored the activity of neurons in the PFC in an animal model. As a result, they made two observations. First, anxiety led to bad decisions when there were distractors present. Second, bad decisions from anxiety involved numbing of PFC neurons.
The evidence indicates that anxiety has a selective effect on neuronal activity that supports decision-making. Anxiety can be very overwhelming not only from how the person feels, but how it interferes with virtually all aspects of daily life, including decision-making.
The current approach to studying and treating anxiety is simplistic. It is associated with fear and it has been mostly assumed that it over-engages entire brain circuits. However, this study demonstrates that anxiety disengages brain cells in a specific manner.
Many people experience anxiety in their daily lives. For some individuals it is just a bad, passing feeling, but for many, anxiety controls their daily life to the point of it affecting the decisions they make.
Patients with anxiety are commonly treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Some individuals try to avoid these because they do not want to take a medication. In addition, long term SSRI use can upregulate phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4), which can reduce the sensitivity of SSRIs in response to long-term treatment.
An alternative botanical to consider is Sceletium tortuosum. This is a South African plant that has been used for hundreds of years for stress and relaxation. It acts as natural SSRI and PDE4 inhibitor and, therefore, has a synergistic effect on the central nervous system and a broader therapeutic effect than an SSRI alone. Another advantage is that this botanical is not contraindicated with other nutrients such as St. John’s wort, 5-HTP, and SAMe.
Sceletium tortuosum helps to reduce anxiety-related amygdala reactivity. This is the area of the brain responsible for arousal and the regulation of emotion, and it plays an important role in mediating anxiety and depression. This botanical dampens the response from the amygdala, which decreases the feeling of fear.
Saffron flower is another botanical that has been shown to help decrease anxiety. There have been several research reviews comparing saffron head to head with SSRIs demonstrating the same efficacy.
By Michael Jurgelewicz, DC, DACBN, DCBCN
Source: Park J., Wood J., Bondi C., Del Arco A., Moghaddam B. Anxiety Evokes Hypofrontality and Disrupts Rule-Relevant Encoding by Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex Neurons. The Journal of Neuroscience, 16 March 2016, 36(11): 3322-3335; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4250-15.2016