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Encephale. 1983;9(4 Suppl 2):161B-166B.

A theory of anxiety: the role of the limbic system.


From psychopharmacological experiments the concept of a "behavioural inhibition system" (BIS) has been developed. This system responds to novel stimuli or to those associated with punishment or nonreward by inhibiting ongoing behaviour and increasing arousal and attention to the environment. It is activity in the BIS that constitutes anxiety and that is reduced by anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines, barbiturates and alcohol). The effects of the anti-anxiety drugs in the brain suggest hypotheses concerning the neural substrate of anxiety. Although the benzodiazepines and barbiturates facilitate the effects of gamma-aminobutyrate, this is insufficient to explain their highly specific behavioural effects. Because of similarities between the behavioural effects of certain lesions and those of the anti-anxiety drugs, it is proposed that these drugs reduce anxiety by impairing the functioning of a widespread neural system including the septo-hippocampal system, the Papez circuit, the prefrontal cortex, and ascending monoaminergic and cholinergic pathways which innervate these forebrain structures. Analysis of the functions of this system suggests that it acts as a comparator: it compares predicted to actual sensory events and activates the outputs of the BIS when there is a mismatch or when the predicted event is aversive. The resulting theory is applied to the symptoms and treatment of anxiety in man.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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