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Scientists have identified a cellular circuit that determines how different regions of the brain communicate, according to new research in Science. It also plays a role in how the mind distinguishes between safe and dangerous environments, so that makes it a promising avenue for treatment of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders. Here’s what lead researcher and neuroscientist Steven Siegelbaum of Columbia University told me about the findings.

Explain to me how the areas of the brain you were looking at work.

There are two major classes of neurons in the brain. Excitatory neurons are involved in producing the everyday flow of information from one area to the next. But that flow of information has to be regulated, because if there’s too much excitation the brain can start developing seizures or be damaged from things like a stroke. That’s what inhibitory neurons do.

And how could inhibitory neurons hold promise for treating people with conditions that cause the brain to perceive fear unnecessarily?

These inhibitory neurons are very familiar to people who’ve ever drunk alcohol, or who’ve taken an Ambien to fall asleep. They [regulate] inhibition in the brain. Now that we can see the circuit where we can turn up or down inhibition, we can regulate the excitatory pathways that are leading to those responses. Maybe the ability to store appropriate memories and fear responses could be enhanced..