Exploring the neurological impact of anxiety on decision making

An increase in inhibitions could reduce anxiety in individuals suffering from anxiety and, as a result, help improve their decision making. A new CU-Boulder study shed light on the brain mechanisms that allow people to make choices and could be helpful in improving treatments for the millions suffering from the effects of anxiety disorders. In the study, psychology professor Yuko Munakata and her research colleagues found that “neural inhibition,” a process that occurs when one nerve cell suppresses activity in another, is a critical aspect in an individual’s ability to make choices.

Researchers have long struggled to determine why people with anxiety can be paralyzed when it comes to decision making involving many potential options. Munakata believes the reason is that people with anxiety have decreased neural inhibition in their brain, which leads to difficulty making choices.

“We found that the worse their anxiety was, the worse they were at making decisions…,” Munakata said. The work was conducted in CU-Boulder’s Center for Determinants of Executive Function and Dysfunction, which brings together researchers from different areas of expertise on campus and beyond including experts on drug studies, neuroimaging and anxiety. The center is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

“The breakthrough here is that this helps us clarify the question of what is happening in the brain when we make choices, like when we choose our words,” Munakata said. “Understanding more about how we make choices, how the brain is doing this, and what the mechanisms are, could allow scientists to develop new treatments for things such as anxiety disorders.”

CU-Boulder professors Tim Curran, Marie Banich and Randall O’Reilly; graduate students Hannah Snyder and Erika Nyhus; and undergraduate honors thesis student Natalie Hutchison co-authored a paper that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.