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Have neuroscientists managed to block fear?


Fear, it seems, is likely the number one thing most people are afraid of. But, has science actually discovered a way to physically block fear, and its partner anxiety, out of our lives?

A recent study published in the journal, Nature Neuroscience, has concentrated on the part of the human brain called the amygdala. This, apparently, is the meeting place for all of the sensory perceptions picked up by all of the organs in the body. Scientists know, and can track, how these perceptions and memories get to the amygdala but they are still in the dark with regard to how they are all processed and released once again.

Is fear a recycled memory or is the immediate sensory data sent the amygdala what cause people to become afraid? Scientists who completed this study did so using electron microscopy and fear inducing experiments on mice. As a result of these experiments, the research team was able to uncover a path that leads to the lateral amygdala from the auditory cortex.

This particular set of brain circuitry apparently processes responses we have been conditioned, over time, to reveal when confronted with certain sounds. We seemingly have developed defensive postures and reactions to certain, what we consider to be, fear based sounds.

The researchers began to uncover its working by causing pain in the mice after they were conditioned to certain sounds. They associated these certain sounds with almost immediate physical pain. The researchers were at the Chinese based Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences and all during these pain conditioning experiments, they were tracking any differences in the reaction of their brain synapses.

They further experimented with closing down the circuitry path to the amygdala by way of light being shone on genetically engineered genes or through the use of certain chemicals. After some time, the mice were observed “freezing up” as soon as they heard those certain sounds that they associated with pain. When the researchers prevented the sounds from traveling the circuit to the amygdala, the mice reacted normally and didn’t “freeze up”.

Dr. Daniel Tranel of the University of Iowa has been studying fear based patients, and fear in general, for many years. He says that fear isn’t really the same thing as anxiety.

“Worry is more in the domain of anxiety,” he said, “and has something to do with something we humans do a lot of, which is the future, spending time in the future.”