Anxious hearts

A racing heart can make mice more anxious in risky situations

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It’s intuitive that feeling scared quickens the pulse, but is the reverse also true? Does a faster heart rate generate anxiety?

Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, a professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, first pondered the relationship between the body and emotions as a psychiatry resident, when he learned that certain cardiac diseases correlate with anxiety disorders — but nobody knew why.

Decades later, his team has found a way to study that relationship in mice. In an article published in March 2023 in Nature, they showed that a racing heart can make mice more anxious in risky situations.

They developed a non-invasive pacemaker, worn like a tiny vest, that precisely controls a mouse’s heartbeat, then used it to boost the pulse to 900 beats per minute, typical of an anxious mouse.

A faster heart rate alone made no difference. But if the mice were in a risky situation — like an open, unprotected space — the faster heart rate amplified their anxiety.

The researchers traced this change to the insular cortex, a brain region that “receives all kinds of information from all across the body, so it could be playing a general role across a broad range of emotional states,” Deisseroth said.

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Nina Bai

Nina Bai is a science writer in the Stanford Medicine Office of Communications.

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