Now comes a vaccine for anxiety

More and more people are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and one in three is thought to suffer from anxiety at some point in their lives. Now scientists have discovered…

More and more people are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and one in three is thought to suffer from anxiety at some point in their lives. Now scientists have discovered the reasons why the brain goes into a state of siege and found two genes that change when children are traumatized. In time, it will be possible to eradicate the very causes of the anxiety.

Brain experts and psychologists are faced with a stark contradiction: In many countries, homicide rates are falling, wars are becoming less frequent and welfare is increasing, fewer people are going to bed hungry, disease is affecting people less than ever before, and life expectancy has never been higher.

The things to worry about should be much less, but nevertheless, more and more people suffer from anxiety.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that diagnosed anxiety disorder cases have increased by 15% in the last ten years.

It is estimated that 264 million people worldwide suffer from anxiety and about one in three will develop a morbid anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

Anxiety helps us maintain alertness so that we are ready to take action if danger comes our way.

In small doses and under the right circumstances, anxiety is, so to speak, a healthy response that prevents us from cutting our way down dark alleys or taking too many risky financial risks.

But in some cases, the anxiety becomes pathological and permeates the thinking so much that it prevents people from living a normal life.

More people suffer from anxiety

At the WHO, people say that a growing percentage of people live with constant anxiety, and that the development affects young people the hardest. In a study that included 22 million children and adolescents who visited the US health care system between 2013 and 2017, the percentage of those suffering from anxiety was found to have more than doubled during the period.

For this reason, researchers are now looking into the brains of anxiety patients to find the causes of this condition.

Through brain scans, they have found the brain centers that increase or decrease anxiety and identified gene changes caused by severe trauma.

Armed with this new knowledge, humans have developed treatments that correct these gene changes and ultimately vaccinate us from developing an anxiety disorder.

Social media increases anxiety

One of the reasons for the growing anxiety is probably that the discussion about mental disorders is now more open than before, and that is why more people turn to the doctor, where the anxiety disorder is diagnosed.

Amplifying this trend, medical definitions of anxiety disorders have also changed. Thus, social anxiety was not recognized as a medical condition until the last decade of the 20th century. Instead, anxiety was seen as part of personality.

Most scientists agree, however, that an increasing number of people suffer from anxiety.

Many researchers point out that social media places increased pressure on people to live up to both their own expectations and those of others, and consider this one of the most likely explanations.

Another possible explanation is that people generally sleep less than they used to and the lack of sleep has an unfortunate effect on the brain.

Although the causes of anxiety are controversial, a certain trend is very clear: Almost twice as many women as men suffer from an anxiety disorder.

In part, this is because male and female hormones have different effects on the communication between neurons in the brain centers involved in anxiety reactions.

Testosterone causes, for example, that it takes more to arouse fear in men, while estrogen and progesterone make it difficult for women to get used to repeated anxiety-provoking situations, even if they turn out to be completely harmless.

It is natural for all people to be afraid of sudden sounds or objects approaching at high speed.

Anxiety or fear arises in all of us at certain times of our lives and for certain reasons.

Women are more anxious at all ages.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is common in all age groups, but is almost twice as common in women as in men.

Young children fear strangers and being left alone. During adolescence comes the time to loosen the ties with the parents and then the fear of exclusion from the group of friends takes over. Later in life, health, finances and security are the most common sources of anxiety.

It is also completely normal and usually also healthy to sometimes feel anxiety and worry when we see, for example, news about terrorism.

But if your anxiety is persistent and you fear becoming a victim of terrorism on a daily basis, then you may be dealing with what doctors have begun to call generalized anxiety disorder.

Light turns anxiety on and off

The amygdala is actually two small areas very deep in the frontal lobes, and these brain centers play an absolutely key role in the brain’s processing of fear.

The brain deals with emotional reactions regarding sensations and signals from internal organs and sets in motion the so-called “flight-fight-reactions” that instantly put the body on alert.

Research has shown that when people are exposed to fear-inducing stimuli, activity in the brain increases, but in patients with anxiety disorders, the activity is even greater than in healthy people.

On the other hand, both humans and animals with damaged mandibles do not react normally to danger, but for example show curiosity towards snakes instead of avoiding them.

Viruses inoculate the brain against anxiety

Scientists have taken a genetically modified virus and let it take up residence in brain cells, which then begin to produce a substance that depresses the amygdala, the very center of anxiety. The method has proven successful in monkeys, and the researchers hope that this method can be used to vaccinate people against anxiety in the future.

A virus causes the brain to produce messengers

A single gene (blue) that codes for the signaling molecule NTF3 is inserted into a completely harmless virus (yellow). The virus is injected into the tonsils where it enters cells and causes them to produce large amounts of this messenger.

Inhibitory neurons are activated in the brain

The NTF3 molecules are sent from the cells and bind to a receptor called NTRK3 on a specific type of nerve cell. These cells have an inhibitory effect on the functioning of the brain.

A new network reduces anxiety

The binding of the neurotransmitter to the receptors causes the neurons to grow and form new connections. In this way, a network of neurons is formed that work together to reduce activity in the brain and thereby reduce anxiety.

Among the first researchers to provide documented evidence for the key role of the brain in anxiety was neurologist Kay Tye of Stanford University in California.


In 2011, she used advanced technology to implant two different genes into neurons in the base of the amygdala in mice. The genes coded for two light-sensitive proteins.


Tye inserted very fine optical fibers into the brains of the mice and was able to control the activity of nerve signals. A blue light turned on the prompts, while a yellow light turned it off.


The experiments showed that when the mandible was activated, the mice showed a typical fear response and sought to get away from the open areas of the cage.


On the other hand, the pang of anxiety seemed to instantly evaporate when the yellow light turned off the mandolin’s activity. Then the mice ventured back out into a more open area.


Hoses evoke an instinctive fear

The advanced technique used by Kay Tye to control the activity of the brain and thus the feelings of anxiety shows essentially the same thing that happens in the brain under natural conditions.


Colored light here only replaces neural pathways from other brain areas, areas that either increase or decrease activity in the brain.


These brain regions are in the frontal lobes that house the ability to think, analyze and plan.


With some simplification, it can be said that the mandolin is the source of the sudden and uncontrolled fear, but the cognitive centers of the brain try to adjust the feeling of anxiety correctly so that it is in accordance with the situation and previous experience.


Experiments show that fear ignites in the brain center almond. By implanting light-sensitive genes into mice, scientists were able to turn on and off activity in the almonds and at the same time the animals’ feelings of fear.

The sight of a snake gives most people an almost instinctive feeling of fear, but since such creatures can be seen in nature on a different level, most people quickly realize whether the creature is well-known and harmless.


The brain center vmPFC in the lower part of the frontal lobe uses that knowledge to send calming messages to the mandible, and those messages end the feeling of fear. The brain center ACC works in the opposite way, from where signals are received that strengthen activity in the brain.


Should you now have knowledge about snakes and know that the Australian broken snake is the most poisonous snake in the world, the sight of such a snake will probably cause the ACC station to send a stimulating message to the brain and at the same time the first instinctive fear reaction will be strengthened.


Feelings of fear or anxiety are controlled by a whole network of neurons between the cortex, vmPFC and ACC, and pathological anxiety can therefore arise in a variety of ways as a result of misguided activity in any of these brain centers.


In 2019, the Italian psychiatrist Paolo Brambilla of the University of Milan went through quite a few scientific articles by other researchers who had used different scanning methods in order to compare the brains of healthy individuals and individuals with generalized anxiety.


The results of these total 89 studies were found to have one thing in common: in the anxiety patients, both anxiety-increasing brain centers, the amygdala and ACC, were larger than in the healthy subjects, and at the same time, the anxiety-reducing brain center vmPFC was both smaller and showed less activity.


Scared monkeys vaccinated

The size and development of certain brain centers and their activity determine a lot about how easily we are filled with anxiety.


Neuropsychologist Andrew Fox at the University of California, Davis, used this in an experiment in 2019, when he vaccinated monkeys so that they stopped feeling fear.

Fear has many faces

This remarkable phenomenon, which we call anxiety or fear depending on the situation, covers everything from phobias, where the cause of the threat lies in certain situations of panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder, in which cases the feeling of fear can cause a sudden heartbeat, sweating and a feeling of levitation. This can happen without warning and equates to a disability. Doctors distinguish between five types of fear and anxiety:

Generalized anxiety

  • Cause: Always present.
  • Symptoms: Abnormally high levels of worry and anxiety about things like health, safety, finances, etc.
  • Prevalence: About 2% of people, twice as many women as men. Often first noticed in the 30s.
  • Common treatment: Talk therapy.

A phobia

  • Cause: Certain conditions.
  • Symptoms: Sudden fear of certain things. This includes, for example, fear of air and flying, feelings of isolation, fear of needles or even clowns.
  • Prevalence: About 15% of people. Often first noticed in adolescence.
  • Common treatment: Imagery and perception therapy, for example in virtual reality. People are allowed to take control of their fear in slow steps.

Social phobia

  • Cause: The company of others.
  • Symptoms: Morbid shyness and fear of wrong behavior and criticism.
  • Prevalence: About 5% of people, mainly women. Often first noticed in adolescence.
  • Common treatment: Anxiolytics and antidepressants.


  • Cause: Occurs suddenly.
  • Symptoms: Sudden fear. An irrational fear that something terrible is imminent.
  • Prevalence: About 5% of people, mainly women. Often first noticed in the 30s.
  • Common treatment: Talk therapy.


  • Cause: Memories from the past.
  • Symptoms: Sudden re-experiencing of a major trauma, eg rape, assault or accident.
  • Prevalence: About 1% of the population but 10-30% of rape or assault victims and war veterans.
  • Common treatment: Anxiolytics and antidepressants and talk therapy.

Andrew Fox began by instilling fear in 46 young rhesus monkeys by having people enter their cages without the monkeys making eye contact.


Each individual’s anxiety response was assessed, and Fox then used various biochemical methods to find out which genes could be attributed to the response activity in the brain.


One of these genes was NTF3 which codes for a messenger. The more active this gene was in the brain, the more likely the monkey was to stay calm in stressful situations.


Andrew Fox inserted this gene into a harmless virus and injected it into the brains of five out of ten monkeys, all of whom had shown the same and moderate fear response.


The method corresponds to those used for experimental vaccines, both DNA and RNA vaccines, for example against Covid-19.


In this case, the idea was that the virus would get into the neurons in the tonsils and cause them to produce a lot of the messenger, just as happened in the monkeys that in the first experiment had shown the least signs of fear.


When the monkeys were then re-entered the cage without making eye contact, the five vaccinated monkeys showed significantly less anxiety than the five non-vaccinated ones.


Andrew Fox and his colleagues still don’t know for sure how NTF3 keeps anxiety under control, but they think it’s most likely that the signal stimulates the formation of a neural network of cells that dampens activity in the brain.


This is now to be studied in more detail and it is hoped that this method can become the beginning of a completely new method for treating and preventing morbid anxiety in people.


“NTF3 is the first molecule that has been found to show a causal relationship with anxiety in monkeys. However, such molecules could number in the hundreds or even thousands,” says Andrew Fox.

A phobia is a fear of something specific, eg high heights, open areas, flying, needles – or even clowns.

Abuse changes a child’s brain

One of the fear reactions that has been studied with great intensity is the so-called “post-traumatic stress disorder”, abbreviated PTSD. This type of panic attack involves people reliving the terror that followed a particular event over and over again.


In the vast majority of cases, doctors and psychologists can find out exactly which event was the root cause of this pathological disorder.


The most common victims of the post-traumatic stress disorder known as PTSD are veterans who have witnessed horrific events on the battlefield and children who have suffered abuse or severe abuse.


In a review article from 2020, child psychiatrist Charlotte Cecil of the Ersamus Medical Institute in Rotterdam described how sexual abuse can change children’s genes, so that the brain begins to behave abnormally and that condition persists.


In particular, changes in two genes are well documented, NR3C1 and SLC6A4. Both genes are involved in the communication between neurons, including in the brain, with the messenger serotonin.


Sexual abuse sets off a biochemical process in the neurons, and in the process certain molecules, so-called methyl molecules, connect to these two genes.


This does not change the function of the genes, but their activity becomes abnormally low and that change remains permanent.


This probably means that serotonin can no longer maintain communication between neurons in the brain, and this may be the reason why up to one in three sexually abused children develop PTSD.


New lucky pills fix gene defects

It seems to strengthen this theory that most forms of fear and anxiety are characterized precisely by the weak activity of serotonin, for example in the brain.


The drugs most commonly used for anxiety are the so-called SSRIs or “lucky pills”, and the effect of these drugs consists precisely in reviving the ability of neurons to communicate with serotonin.

Treatment works little better than placebo

A large anxiety study shows that talk therapy has a slightly better effect than placebo treatment. However, the treatment effect is different depending on the type of anxiety.

But now children who suffer from post-abuse PTSD may be able to receive treatment that eradicates the cause of this disorder.

In 2017, Chinese researchers at Xi’an Jiaotong University demonstrated that it was possible to remove the methyl molecules from genetic material in the brain and thus make the genes function normally again.

The researchers used the substance 5-Aza-dc, which is known to embed itself in the chromosomes and prevent methyl molecules from gaining a foothold.

The results of this experiment indicated that the substance removed from the NTF3 gene the methyl molecules that had caused anxiety in mice that had been made alcoholics.

Scientists now dream that by injecting this substance it will also be possible to remove methyl molecules from the two genes that have been affected in children after sexual abuse.

If that dream comes true, this could be the treatment that cures the children of PTSD (traumatic stress disorder) once and for all.

Scientists still do not know why more and more people suffer from various types of anxiety disorders, but on the other hand, the brain’s fear-functioning mechanisms have become well enough understood to be able to apply a treatment that excites.

And in a few more years, GMOs and vaccines might finally convince the brain that there really isn’t much to worry about in a world that’s become so much safer than it used to be.

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