It was midterm season during spring quarter and Powell Library was packed.
As Jason Ajnassian studied for his tests, he suddenly felt tense. His body ached. Thoughts of failure raced through his mind and even though he had stayed in the library for hours, he was unable to get anything done.
The fourth-year history student is one of millions of Americans diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
Researchers at UCLA’s psychology department concluded earlier this month that low doses of the drug scopolamine, taken in conjunction with counseling, can potentially help rid individuals of debilitating anxiety disorders.
The drug, commonly used to treat nausea and motion sickness, is noninvasive and can potentially be taken in low doses, according to findings from the research.
About 25 percent of Americans experience anxiety disorders in their life, costing patients their jobs and normal lifestyles, said Michael Fanselow, professor of psychology and senior author of the study.
Although fear and anxiety have evolved in humans for protection, anxiety has the potential to keep people from functioning in their daily lives.
“Thousands of years ago, humans in the wild observed and experienced adverse outcomes to things like snakes and sabertooth tigers, which taught them how to avoid and fear them to keep them safe,” Fanselow said.” These evolutionary traits have stuck with humans today.”
Today, anxiety can manifest in interpersonal interactions. Humans are social creatures that need to cooperate with one another, so the anxiety caused by the thought of rejection and embarrassment stems from the fear of disrupting social norms, Fanselow said.
“A student with a social phobia might be so fearful of humiliation that it prevents them from even leaving their room to go to class or participating in any discussions,” said Michael Treanor, a postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Anxiety Disorders Research Center.
Young adults tend to experience anxiety because of lifestyle changes like leaving their parents’ homes and becoming more independent, said Carol Aneshensel, a professor in the department of community health sciences.
In a competitive university like UCLA, students with anxiety may find it hard to keep up.
“The pace is so rapid and compressed and you feel like everyone is better than you,” Ajnassian said, who was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder last year. “You don’t realize that a lot of people are probably going through the same thing as you.”
He said he learned to cope with his anxiety by seeing a UCLA therapist and learning different relaxation methods.
Anxiety disorders like phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder are currently treated with exposure therapy, which allow the patient to face their fear in a safe environment and consequently extinguish the irrational fear, Treanor said.
The fear tends to return, however, when patients are taken away from the safe environment, since the brain has not forgotten the place where it experienced the fear, he added.
During the two-year study, the UCLA researchers placed the rats in a box and taught them to associate a tone with a mild foot shock, said Moriel Zelikowsky, lead author of the study. They measured how long the animal froze in fear when the tone came on. They split the rats into two different groups – one with a dose of scopolamine and one without – and placed them in new boxes.
The rats then heard the tone without a shock and eventually learned not to fear the sound. When the researchers placed them back into the original boxes and played the tone, rats given the dose of the drug were much less fearful than rats without it, Zelikowsky said.
The results showed that scopolamine blocks the part of the brain that associates learning with the environment.
These findings suggest that if anxious patients are given a dose of scopolamine during their exposure therapy sessions, they will no longer revert back to their original fears when placed in real-life situations, Fanselow said.
During the time of the study, the investigators were unable to use humans as subjects because human anxieties are complex and difficult to control, but the results can be used to evaluate the drug’s impact on people. If administered in higher doses, side effects include disorientation and allergic reactions.
Fanselow said the researchers’ next steps will be to conduct research to replicate these finding in humans, sampling from those with common anxieties like social phobia.
“There are new trends in combining neuroscience and psychology to help develop better treatments for patients,” Fanselow said. “It’s very possible for us to eliminate these anxiety disorders in the very near future.”