How does the brain process fear?

November 05, 2020

When a frightful creature startles you, your brain may activate its fear-processing circuitry, sending your heart racing to help you escape the threat. It's also the job of the brain's fear-processing circuits to help you learn from experience to recognize which situations are truly dangerous and to respond appropriately--so if the scare comes from a costumed goblin, you'll probably recover quickly.

In more dire circumstances, however, the brain's fear response can be critical for survival. "Being able to fear is the ability to sense the danger and is the driving force to figure out a way to escape or fight back," said Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Professor Bo Li.

[VIDEO: Watching a mouse think about fear and pleasure - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7MujP-Z0ds]

Li's team is probing the brain circuits that underlie fear, using sophisticated neuroscience tools to map their connections and tease out how specific components contribute to learning fear. A deeper understanding of these circuits could lead to better ways to control the overactive or inappropriate fear responses experienced by people with anxiety disorders.

Many of their studies begin with the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure that is considered the hub for fear processing in the brain. While the amygdala was once thought to be devoted exclusively to processing fear, researchers are now broadening their understanding of its role. Li's team has found that the amygdala is also important for reward-based learning, and as they trace its connections to other parts of the brain, they are uncovering additional complexity. Li said:

"It is important for formation of fearful memory, but it's also important for interacting with other brain systems in a different behavior context. We think that this circuit that we discovered that plays a role in regulating fearful memory is only a tip of the iceberg. It is indeed important for regulating fearful memory, but probably is also involved in more complex behavior."

Li and his colleagues were surprised recently to find that the amygdala communicates with a part of the brain best known for its role in controlling movement. The structure, called the globus pallidus, was not known to be involved in fear processing or memory formation. But when the researchers interfered with signaling between the amygdala and the globus pallidus in the brains of mice, they found that the animals failed to learn that a particular sound cue signaled an unpleasant sensation. Based on their experiments, this component of the fear-processing circuitry might be important for alerting the brain "which situations are worth learning from," Li said.

Li's team and collaborators at Stanford University reported recent findings in the Journal of Neuroscience. For more of Li's research on how fear is processed in the brain, check out this video of his talk at "Life Science Across the Globe".
-end-


Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Related Brain Articles from Brightsurf:

Glioblastoma nanomedicine crosses into brain in mice, eradicates recurring brain cancer
A new synthetic protein nanoparticle capable of slipping past the nearly impermeable blood-brain barrier in mice could deliver cancer-killing drugs directly to malignant brain tumors, new research from the University of Michigan shows.

Children with asymptomatic brain bleeds as newborns show normal brain development at age 2
A study by UNC researchers finds that neurodevelopmental scores and gray matter volumes at age two years did not differ between children who had MRI-confirmed asymptomatic subdural hemorrhages when they were neonates, compared to children with no history of subdural hemorrhage.

New model of human brain 'conversations' could inform research on brain disease, cognition
A team of Indiana University neuroscientists has built a new model of human brain networks that sheds light on how the brain functions.

Human brain size gene triggers bigger brain in monkeys
Dresden and Japanese researchers show that a human-specific gene causes a larger neocortex in the common marmoset, a non-human primate.

Unique insight into development of the human brain: Model of the early embryonic brain
Stem cell researchers from the University of Copenhagen have designed a model of an early embryonic brain.

An optical brain-to-brain interface supports information exchange for locomotion control
Chinese researchers established an optical BtBI that supports rapid information transmission for precise locomotion control, thus providing a proof-of-principle demonstration of fast BtBI for real-time behavioral control.

Transplanting human nerve cells into a mouse brain reveals how they wire into brain circuits
A team of researchers led by Pierre Vanderhaeghen and Vincent Bonin (VIB-KU Leuven, Université libre de Bruxelles and NERF) showed how human nerve cells can develop at their own pace, and form highly precise connections with the surrounding mouse brain cells.

Brain scans reveal how the human brain compensates when one hemisphere is removed
Researchers studying six adults who had one of their brain hemispheres removed during childhood to reduce epileptic seizures found that the remaining half of the brain formed unusually strong connections between different functional brain networks, which potentially help the body to function as if the brain were intact.

Alcohol byproduct contributes to brain chemistry changes in specific brain regions
Study of mouse models provides clear implications for new targets to treat alcohol use disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Scientists predict the areas of the brain to stimulate transitions between different brain states
Using a computer model of the brain, Gustavo Deco, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Josephine Cruzat, a member of his team, together with a group of international collaborators, have developed an innovative method published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept.

Read More: Brain News and Brain Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.