A neuroscientist at The University of Toledo is creating a new way to help people face their fears.
The National Institute of Mental Health awarded Dr. Jianyang Du, assistant professor in the UT Department of Biological Sciences, a five-year, $1.75 million grant to develop a method to modify fearful memories, which could lead to new treatment options for mental health illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.
“Excessive fear memories such as war-time trauma or a near-death experience can be crippling,” Du said. “However, fear memories also can be critical for survival. Developing means to either erase or to strengthen fear memory could aid understanding of how memories are formed and may suggest novel therapeutic strategies.”
Du, who studies how protons regulate brain circuits and behaviors, found in mouse brains that manipulating pH in the amygdala can influence or control fear memories during recollection, creating a short window of increased susceptibility to either erase or enhance the memory.
Du manipulates the pH levels by using carbon dioxide inhalation and activating key molecular components of the central nervous system called acid-sensing ion channels, which spread throughout the body and allow for transmission of signals in the nervous system. The acid-sensing ion channels are important targets for pharmaceutical drug designers because of their importance to learning and memory.
“Our goal is to uncover the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which traumatic memories are stored in the brain and how carbon-dioxide inhalation and acid-sensing ion channels influence or control emotional behaviors, such as anxiety and depression,” Du said. “The ability to rewire the brain to modify existing fearful memories is very important as it relates to mental disorders.”