Main Navigation

University Resources

Nobel Winner Capecchi Discovers New Brain Mechanism

The pandemic and its aftermath have raised anxiety to new levels. But the roots of anxiety-related conditions, including obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder (OCSD), are still unclear.

In a new study, University of Utah Health scientists discovered insights into the importance of a minor cell type in the brain — microglia —in controlling anxiety-related behaviors in laboratory mice. Traditionally, neurons — the predominant brain cell type — are thought to control behavior.

The researchers showed that, like buttons on a game controller, specific microglia populations activate anxiety and OCSD behaviors while others dampen them. Further, microglia communicate with neurons to invoke the behaviors. The findings, published in Molecular Psychiatry, could eventually lead to new approaches for targeted therapies.

“A small amount of anxiety is good,” said Nobel Laureate Mario Capecchi, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of human genetics at the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine at University of Utah and of biology in the School of Biological Sciences. He is also senior author of the study. “Anxiety motivates us, spurs us on, and gives us that extra bit of push that said, ‘I can.’ But a large dose of anxiety overwhelms us. We become mentally paralyzed, the heart beats faster, we sweat, and confusion settles in our minds.”

“This work is unique and has challenged the current dogma about the role of microglia function in the brain”

Capecchi, who arrived at the University of Utah in  the 1973 did much of his early research, leading to his Nobel Prize, at U Biology where a permanent display of his original equipment involving gene-targeting is housed.

Read the full story by Julie Kiefer about this exciting new research by Utah’s Nobel laureate in U of U Health.