Boosting natural feel-good chemicals could help treat anxiety, according to new research from the University of Sydney that reveals the role of the brain’s own opioids.
“Our findings show that opioids produced and released by our own brain cells strongly regulate the critical neural circuits that are important for fear responses,” said Associate Professor Elena Bagley, who led the research.
The findings suggest medications that boost the effect of these natural opioids might be a better way to reduce anxiety than opioid drugs like morphine, which can have major side effects.
Fear and anxiety help defend us against harm, and are largely controlled via circuits in the brain that allow brain cells to pass electrical or chemical signals to each other.
However, disturbances in these circuits can cause prolonged and disabling emotional responses that are out of proportion to threatening events.
These disturbances are thought to underlie many anxiety disorders such as phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder, which affect up to a million Australians each year.
Professor Bagley said that these disorders are poorly managed by commonly prescribed medications.
“These drugs weren’t developed to treat anxiety but they’re widely used because of chance findings suggesting their clinical usefulness,” she said.
The research tracked the actions of a natural opioid known as enkephalin and studied its effect on different receptors in the brain.
“Understanding the cellular actions of natural opioids at these two receptors is critical if we hope to use opioid-related medications for emotional issues,” said Professor Bagley.
The study showed that natural opioids strongly regulate the neural pathways important in anxiety disorders, suggesting that future therapies for anxiety disorders could target the brain’s own opioid system.
“We also show that we could boost the actions of these opioids using a novel pharmacological approach,” Professor Bagley said.
Read more about the brain’s natural opioids here. Story credit: University of Sydney newsroom.
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