How A Chemical Imbalance Could Be Cause Of Anxiety In Young Women

With mental health becoming more and more of a critical concern worldwide, researchers from the University of Surrey are delving deeper into the brain’s inner workings to understand the roots of anxiety. A recent study, published in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, sheds light on how two brain chemicals, particularly in young women, may play unexpected roles in the development of anxiety symptoms. This insight not only challenges previous assumptions but also opens new pathways for potential treatments.

During adolescence, a critical period of brain development, the brain undergoes significant changes, including fluctuations in chemicals known as neurochemicals. These substances are pivotal in sending signals across the brain, influencing everything from our emotions to our ability to learn and make decisions. Two of these neurochemicals, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate, have been the focus of recent research due to their involvement in anxiety.

Brain trash or waste concept: Anxiety, stress, depression, disease, dementia
With mental health becoming more and more of a critical concern worldwide, researchers from the University of Surrey are delving deeper into the brain’s inner workings to understand the roots of anxiety. (© tadamichi –

“Our research indicates that the equilibrium between GABA and glutamate in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex serves as a vital indicator of anxiety levels,” says study co-author Dr. Nicola Johnstone, a research fellow at the University of Surrey’s School of Psychology, in a media release. “While glutamate propels brain activity, GABA acts as a brake. Our findings suggest that anxiety, often characterized by impaired rational thought, is intricately linked to the overactive braking system in the brain.” 

GABA is primarily known for its inhibitory function in the brain, essentially helping to calm brain activity. On the other hand, glutamate is a key player in excitation, promoting brain activity. The balance between these two chemicals is crucial for healthy brain function. However, when this balance is disrupted, it can lead to various mental health issues, including anxiety.

The study, conducted using magnetic resonance spectroscopy, examined the levels of GABA and glutamate in young females aged 10 to 25. This age range is particularly significant as it encompasses a period of rapid brain development and is also when many mental health disorders, including anxiety, begin to manifest.

The findings revealed that higher levels of GABA in specific brain regions associated with emotion regulation, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, were linked to increased levels of anxiety. This contradicts the previously held belief that higher GABA levels would lead to lower anxiety, suggesting instead that an over-inhibition of brain activity may contribute to anxiety symptoms.

The study also observed a decrease in glutamate levels with age, which, along with the increase in GABA, suggests a shift in the neurochemical balance as the brain matures. This shift could have implications for the development of anxiety, highlighting the need for a deeper understanding of how these neurochemicals interact over time.

Woman feeling sad, depressed
The development of anxiety in girls and young women may stem from an imbalance between two crucial brain chemicals, Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) and Glutamate. (Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels)

“Grasping how key brain chemicals, GABA and glutamate, fluctuate during important growth stages like adolescence is vital for spotting and stopping anxiety disorders early,” explains study co-author Dr. Kathrin Cohen Kadosh, associate professor in developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of Surrey. “This study shines a light on the possibility of focusing on these brain chemicals for new treatments, particularly in young women.” 

The findings emphasize the importance of considering neurochemical changes during adolescence in understanding and treating anxiety. As the brain continues to develop during this period, interventions that address the underlying neurochemical imbalances could offer more effective and lasting solutions for anxiety disorders.

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