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Neurology research Brain region links anxiety and low social status

A higher level of anxiety corresponds to a lower level of success in social situations, the study found

(Keystone)

Scientists at a Swiss university have found that anxiety and lower social status are linked in a specific part of the brain. They were able to treat that brain region with drugs in rats to influence anxious behaviour and social standing.

The research team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) categorised rats according to their level of anxiety. They then placed highly anxious rats into competitive social situations with their less anxious counterparts, finding that those with higher anxiety levels performed less well.

The scientists then pinpointed the area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, which is related to motivation, depression and anxiety. They found that anxious rats had a reduced energy metabolism in their nucleus accubens, wherein the cells in charge of breathing and energy production didn’t perform as well.

Researchers then gave the rats drugs that either block or enhance those cells, known as mitochondria, in the nucleus accumbens. One of the drugs used was part of the vitamin B3, also known as niacin. The rats who received blocking agents did less well in socially competitive situations, so their social status dropped. Those who received enhancement drugs in their nucleus accumbens enjoyed improved social status – but only for as long as the drugs lasted.

The study confirms that anxiety can predispose an individual to a lower social standing. It also suggests that manipulating the nucleus accumbens region of the brain with drugs could influence a person’s rank in society.

It is also the first study to find that brain energy metabolism influences how social hierarchies are established. Carmen Sandi, the EPFL professor whose lab conducted the study, acknowledges that the study is only a first step, as it was conducted on rats and humans’ social hierarchy and depends on a whole host of factors. However, she said the results show promise.

“This is an exciting finding that shows a brain mechanism whereby anxious personality
affects social competitiveness - and this points to very promising directions in this
field.”

The study was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the NCCR-Synapsy, and the EPFL. It involved a collaboration between the EPFL’s Brain Mind Institute and the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences SA.

swissinfo.ch and agencies

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