Our mental health is always important, but more so than ever during these challenging times. Between the ongoing COVID pandemic, economic insecurity, social turmoil, and the like, rates of anxiety and depression are skyrocketing. How to cope? And why do we experience mental health issues in the first place?

As with the coronavirus, the answers are found in science.

The Weizmann Institute’s renowned neuroscientists do more than study the brain; they investigate how this most mysterious of organs responds to the world, processes our experiences, plays a role in emotional response, consolidates memories, becomes ill, and more. Our scientists also seek to develop effective medications and treatments. As Prof. Alon Chen – a renowned expert in neuropsychiatry and Weizmann Institute president – says, “I strongly believe that when we identify the mechanisms in the brain, we can use them to develop better ways to treat these conditions.” 

Here are just a few examples of this vital work.

  • Why are some people more anxious? Many of us have a hard time turning off our stress response, which can lead to anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, and even physical health problems such as metabolic disorders and heart disease. But it is not our fault, shows Prof. Alon Chen, who studies the link between the brain and psychiatric issues.

    While investigating what happens in some people’s brains to keep them in a state of anxiety, Prof. Chen proved a long-held scientific hypothesis: that a certain neurotransmitter shuts down the stress response once the event is over, but when that process goes awry, the sufferer’s stress level stays on “high,” leading to ongoing, chronic anxiety. These findings could provide much-needed improvements to the treatment of mental illnesses.

  • The “love hormone” isn’t always. We have all heard of oxytocin – the “love hormone” – which promotes bonding and affection. But as we stay shut in with our loved ones during COVID, irritation levels may be rising – and may also be due to oxytocin. In new research on that hormone’s levels in mice living together, Prof. Chen found that oxytocin can enhance aggression. This indicates that the hormone does not amplify only affection, but a range of social cues. The work has implications for efforts to use oxytocin to treat mental illnesses ranging from social anxiety and autism to schizophrenia. 

  • People with anxiety perceive the world differently. Prof. Rony Paz found that people diagnosed with anxiety disorders are less able to distinguish between “safe” and negative stimuli, seeing them all as a threat. He also noted differences in anxious people’s brains, particularly in the amygdala – a region related to fear and anxiety – which underscores the idea that emotional experiences induce long-term neurological changes. “An emotional event, sometimes even a minor one, can induce brain changes that can potentially lead to full-blown anxiety,” says Prof. Paz. Understanding how the process of perception operates in anxiety patients may lead to better treatments for the disorder. 

  • Mental illness is human. In other research, Prof. Paz found that mental illness is the result of our having such sophisticated brains. The advanced “software” that makes our brains so complicated, so capable of functioning at a high level, is also more likely to go awry, similar to the way today’s complex technologies are also more prone to glitches. His work helps explain why disorders such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and even autism are so common.

  • Genetic pathway could lead to novel drugs. Prof. Mike Fainzilber and his team discovered that the lack of a certain gene, importin alpha-5, meant that anxiety levels were significantly reduced. This previously unknown mechanism could guide the search for new classes of anxiety-alleviating medications, which is vital because, as Prof. Fainzilber says, “Current drugs for anxiety are limited in their efficacy or have undesirable side effects, which also limit their usefulness. Our findings may help overcome these limitations.” The team has already identified a number of drug candidates that target the newly discovered pathway.

Prof. Chen has practical suggestions for how to cope during these turbulent times: exercise as much as possible, eat healthfully, give meditation a try, and socialize, even if only virtually. After all, we need each other now more than ever.

And Weizmann scientists need you: please support their innovative, crucial mental health research today.

Improving Health & Medicine

Maintaining Mental Well-Being During a Crisis

E-news, July 2020 • TAGS: Neuroscience , Chemistry , Brain , Culture , Mental health

Our mental health is always important, but more so than ever during these challenging times. Between the ongoing COVID pandemic, economic insecurity, social turmoil, and the like, rates of anxiety and depression are skyrocketing. How to cope? And why do we experience mental health issues in the first place?

As with the coronavirus, the answers are found in science.

The Weizmann Institute’s renowned neuroscientists do more than study the brain; they investigate how this most mysterious of organs responds to the world, processes our experiences, plays a role in emotional response, consolidates memories, becomes ill, and more. Our scientists also seek to develop effective medications and treatments. As Prof. Alon Chen – a renowned expert in neuropsychiatry and Weizmann Institute president – says, “I strongly believe that when we identify the mechanisms in the brain, we can use them to develop better ways to treat these conditions.” 

Here are just a few examples of this vital work.

  • Why are some people more anxious? Many of us have a hard time turning off our stress response, which can lead to anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, and even physical health problems such as metabolic disorders and heart disease. But it is not our fault, shows Prof. Alon Chen, who studies the link between the brain and psychiatric issues.

    While investigating what happens in some people’s brains to keep them in a state of anxiety, Prof. Chen proved a long-held scientific hypothesis: that a certain neurotransmitter shuts down the stress response once the event is over, but when that process goes awry, the sufferer’s stress level stays on “high,” leading to ongoing, chronic anxiety. These findings could provide much-needed improvements to the treatment of mental illnesses.

  • The “love hormone” isn’t always. We have all heard of oxytocin – the “love hormone” – which promotes bonding and affection. But as we stay shut in with our loved ones during COVID, irritation levels may be rising – and may also be due to oxytocin. In new research on that hormone’s levels in mice living together, Prof. Chen found that oxytocin can enhance aggression. This indicates that the hormone does not amplify only affection, but a range of social cues. The work has implications for efforts to use oxytocin to treat mental illnesses ranging from social anxiety and autism to schizophrenia. 

  • People with anxiety perceive the world differently. Prof. Rony Paz found that people diagnosed with anxiety disorders are less able to distinguish between “safe” and negative stimuli, seeing them all as a threat. He also noted differences in anxious people’s brains, particularly in the amygdala – a region related to fear and anxiety – which underscores the idea that emotional experiences induce long-term neurological changes. “An emotional event, sometimes even a minor one, can induce brain changes that can potentially lead to full-blown anxiety,” says Prof. Paz. Understanding how the process of perception operates in anxiety patients may lead to better treatments for the disorder. 

  • Mental illness is human. In other research, Prof. Paz found that mental illness is the result of our having such sophisticated brains. The advanced “software” that makes our brains so complicated, so capable of functioning at a high level, is also more likely to go awry, similar to the way today’s complex technologies are also more prone to glitches. His work helps explain why disorders such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and even autism are so common.

  • Genetic pathway could lead to novel drugs. Prof. Mike Fainzilber and his team discovered that the lack of a certain gene, importin alpha-5, meant that anxiety levels were significantly reduced. This previously unknown mechanism could guide the search for new classes of anxiety-alleviating medications, which is vital because, as Prof. Fainzilber says, “Current drugs for anxiety are limited in their efficacy or have undesirable side effects, which also limit their usefulness. Our findings may help overcome these limitations.” The team has already identified a number of drug candidates that target the newly discovered pathway.

Prof. Chen has practical suggestions for how to cope during these turbulent times: exercise as much as possible, eat healthfully, give meditation a try, and socialize, even if only virtually. After all, we need each other now more than ever.

And Weizmann scientists need you: please support their innovative, crucial mental health research today.