Soon, a pill to combat stress?

London: Scientists have identified a brain mechanism that turns fear into overwhelming anxiety or depression, a discovery which they say could soon lead to the development of a pill that will keep stress at bay.

The research by a team at the Leicester University in the UK was inspired by the observation that while many people experience traumatic events, only some descend into depression or other stress-linked psychiatric disorders.

During experiments on mice, the researchers identified a protein, called neuropsin, which is made in the amygdala, the brain`s "fear centre".

In times of stress, it was found that the brain makes more neuropsin which triggers a series of chemical reactions that culminate in a "fear gene" being switched on, and the feelings of anxiety.

When the protein was blocked, the researchers found that it stopped the animals from displaying anxiety in stressful situations, the Daily Mail reported.

Developing drugs that target the neuropsin biological pathway could provide new treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety conditions, the researchers said.

Lead scientist Dr Robert Pawlak said: "Our discovery opens up new possibilities for the prevention and treatment of stress-related psychiatric disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder."

He said: "Studies in mice revealed that upon feeling stressed, they stayed away from zones in a maze where they felt unsafe.

"These were open and illuminated spaces they avoid when they are anxious.

"However, when the proteins produced by the amygdala were blocked the mice did not exhibit the same trait. The behavioural consequences of stress were no longer present.

"We conclude that the activity of neuropsin and its partners may determine vulnerability to stress."

Although the experiments were in mice, the researchers are optimistic that the protein also affects how the human brain copes with life`s troubles and the new findings could lead to pills that quash such stress-related conditions before they arise.

Though they "are tremendously excited by these findings", Dr Pawlak cautioned that much more research is necessary.

He said: "We know that all the members of the neuropsin pathway are present in the human brain.

"They may play a similar role in humans and further research will be necessary to examine the potential of therapies for controlling stress-related behaviours,"he said.

According to the researchers, who reported their study in the journal Nature, stress-related disorders affect a large percentage of the population and generate enormous personal, social and economic impact.