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The Role of the Hippocampus in Generalized Anxiety Disorder

written by: Nicholas Kuvaas • edited by: jen2008 • updated: 10/14/2010

The brain is a complex organ which affects so many things including psychological disorders. This article examines the specific relationship between generalized anxiety disorder and the hippocampus.

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    A Brief Summary of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

    Everyone experiences anxiety at one time in their life. Anxiety can manifest itself as fear, agitation, or worry, and some events can be very anxious. However, if anxiety begins to affect your daily life on a regular basis, it becomes problematic1. Generalized anxiety disorder is excessive and constant worrying about, well, everything that also affects daily life and activities. Life in general such as relationships, work, and day-to-day activities may be the source of excessive and constant worrying, but this is different from specific anxiety disorders in that many things can trigger an anxious response.

    Other symptoms related to generalized anxiety disorder appear in two forms, physical symptoms and cognitive symptoms. Physical symptoms may include fatigue, muscle tension, trembling or twitchiness, sweating or nausea, and shortness of breath or rapid heartbeat. The cognitive symptoms are restlessness or feeling on edge, difficulty concentrating, and trouble sleeping due to anxiety. As possible causes of generalized anxiety disorder start to be studied, the brain became the center focus. Overtime, certain areas of the brain have been associated with generalized anxiety disorder, and one of these areas is the hippocampus.

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    What Does the Hippocampus Do?

    In the brain, attached to the temporal lobe is the hippocampus. Specifically, it lies under the medial temporal lobe and exists on both sides of the brain. If you know where your temple is, the temporal lobe is located directly beneath it. The hippocampus plays an important role in memory, specifically episodic memory (events) and facts2. Its role is so important that damage to it can lead to anterograde amnesia (loss of ability to form new memories while remembering memories that happened before the damage), and it is also easily damaged compared to the rest of the brain making it vulnerable. New research has found that the hippocampus is also related to emotions3, and this is where generalized anxiety disorder and the hippocampus become related.

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    The Hippocampus and Generalized Anxiety Disorder

    There is a relationship between the hippocampus and generalized anxiety disorder, but it is not only the hippocampus that is involved in this process3. There is also the amygdala which governs emotions and is responsible for fear responses in the brain and directly interacts with the hippocampus. Together, these two brain structures connect an emotion to an event and this leads to a release of stress hormones which increase arousal, a factor related to anxiety. Over time, the memory alone of the event can bring on this reaction leading to a period of anxiety. People who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder may have dysfunctional pathways which release too many or too few neurotransmitters leading to an abnormal anxiety response.

    Again, the specifics are still unclear. However, this is believed to be how the hippocampus is related to generalized anxiety disorder, and it is also believed to related to other anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, and specific phobias. The brain is a complex mechanism and few things act alone, but, with time, science will determine the mechanisms related to disorders, and this will lead to cures and better solutions.