The researchers Michael Rogan and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel discovered that a previously unknown "safety circuit" exists deep within the brain and is responsible for the good feelings associated with safety and security. The findings appear in the April 21 issue of Neuron.
"This work points to a second system in addition to the brain's well-known fear circuits that probably malfunctions in some people with anxiety disorders," says the study's first author, Michael Rogan, Ph.D., of Columbia's Center for Neurobiology and Behavior. "This opens up hope for other types of treatment that can act on your sense of safety and security."
The new safety circuit may also lead to a better understanding of addiction since the circuit operates in the same part of the brain known to be involved in addiction. "There's a feeling of invulnerability that comes with alcohol and other drugs," Dr. Rogan says. "Addicts frequently say, 'I had my first drink, and I felt safe for the first time,' so it may be that drugs of abuse artificially activate some aspect of this safety mechanism."
Anxiety disorders previously linked only to fear
Most anxiety research focuses on the brain's fear circuits and it's easy to understand why. Fear, after all, is the problem in anxiety disorders. "When someone goes to a psychiatrist in terror or grinding anxiety, the doctor doesn't think about the patient's happiness issues," Dr. Rogan says.
Yet the neurobiology of happiness, which has generally been ignored by researchers as well as physicians, may be equally important in the disorders. "The missing part of our picture of anxiety is the good feelings associated with being safe and secure," Dr. Rogan says. "But positive emotions are harder to study in
Contact: Craig LeMoult
Columbia University Medical Center