Anxiety Treatment and The Role of fMRI Technology

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fmri for anxietyAnxiety can be brutal. This is not just a vague sense of unease. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) involves nearly constant and uncontrollable worry to the point that thinking clearly becomes impossible. GAD can destroy lives. Additional symptoms of GAD and anxiety include:

● Inability to concentrate
● Extreme irritability
● Fatigue and sleep disorders
● Heightened startle response
● Digestive disorders
● Debilitating headaches
● Chronic nausea
● Persistent muscle tension

Anxiety has been recorded as a serious disease as far back as Ancient Greece and a wide variety of treatments have had limited success so far. However, the application of new technologies in coordination with some very old techniques is making some significant advances.

Ancient arts and future tech

Since its introduction in the 1990’s, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been able to delve deeply into the secrets of the brain. Unlike older MRI machines, fMRI does not require shots, surgery, or the ingestion of radioactive markers. It has been employed for a range of research and medical applications such as to detect the onset of Alzheimer’s, to study the brain after a stroke, and even was recently used by brand consultant Martin Lindstrom to support his claim that what we call love may be the primary driver of the iPhone craze.

Perhaps the most significant use of fMRI has been to investigate the impact of mindfulness training on anxiety. Unlike traditional treatments for anxiety disorders such as SSRI’s, non-medical practices such as breath-focused techniques can studied in real time with this technology to assess the potential implications for anxiety treatment.

GAD and the amygdala

Anxiety disorder, an eminently modern phenomenon, has been linked in brain scans to increased activity in the amygdala, a small area of the brain involved in fear-based emotional responses, sometimes called the “reptile brain.” The Journal of Psychopharmacology published a review of studies about how the amygdala responded to various treatments.

Using fMRI scans before and after, doctors have been able to test the effectiveness of meditation, mindfulness, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) on treating anxiety. The National Institute of Health agrees that “there are tremendous unmet medical needs that fMRI could address with significant benefit to human health,” but that will require a new generation of fMRIs compact and inexpensive enough for clinic use in diagnosing appropriate anxiety treatments.

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