Teaching the brain to calm itself

A safety signal can counteract anxiety-producing situations.

Millions of people suffer from anxiety disorders. Could something as simple as a familiar, reassuring motif or image—be it a song, stuffed toy, or geometric shape—help them deal with their fear?

People with anxiety disorders have comparatively weak connections along a particular brain pathway responsible for learning that something is safe (a process called extinction). That may be one reason why anxiety therapy that exposes people to scary things often doesn’t help.

But there’s a totally separate brain circuit that also plays a role in learning something is safe, Yale researchers have found. Originating in the hippocampus, the circuit can be activated by exposing a person to a nonthreatening object or symbol. That so-called safety signal can effectively counteract anxiety-provoking situations.

For a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, assistant psychology professor Dylan Gee showed psychologically healthy adults a series of geometric shapes. When a certain shape (for example, a green triangle) appeared, it was sometimes accompanied by an unpleasant burst of noise, causing participants anxiety. “Previous work has shown that repeatedly showing it without the noise will form a new safety memory,” says Gee. “But a threat memory trace remains.”

Next Gee showed participants a red circle over and over, with no noise. That circle was the safety signal. Finally, she paired the circle with the triangle (and no noise)—and participants’ anxiety dropped further than it had when they saw the noiseless triangle alone. The red circle counteracted fear, through a different neural circuit.

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