Researchers find amygdala not always necessary for fear

by Bob Yirka report
Amygdala
Location of the amygdala in the human brain. Image: Wikipedia.

(Medical Xpress)—Researchers at the University of Iowa have found that three volunteer women with defective amygdalas were able to experience internal fear. In their paper published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the team describes how they were able to induce fear in the volunteers despite all three suffering from a degenerative disease that made them immune to fear in the "normal" sense.

After many years of research by a wide range of scientists, a consensus had been reached regarding the way the controls the sensation of fear. Most agreed that the primary brain region involved was the amygdala – without it, people would lead fear-free lives. This new research suggests such a conclusion may have been at least partially flawed, as the three women in the study all suffered from a genetic disease that leads over time to degeneration of the amygdala. They'd all been living without feeling fear for many years.

The three women, listed as SM, AM and BG, all have Urbach-Wiethe disease – a that causes the degeneration of a tiny part of the brain known as the amygdala. AM and BG are identical twins, and SM has volunteered for extensive testing over many years and has demonstrated a near immunity to fear from not just lab tests (being shown spiders, snakes, scary movies, etc.) but real life threats such as being held at knifepoint. All such fear inducing threats however, have had one thing in common, they are what are known as external threats. This new research set out to test internal threats – those that come from within, such as heart attacks, and in this case, the possibility of suffocating.

The volunteers weren't suffocated of course, instead, suffocation was simulated by putting a mask on the volunteers' faces forcing them to breathe air with high amounts of carbon dioxide in it. This leads, of course to abnormal amounts of carbon dioxide in the blood, which for some, can lead to panic. For the three volunteers, that's exactly what happened. Each reported feeling extreme amounts of fear – a sensation they had not experienced in many years. Thus, despite a non-functioning amygdala, the women were still able to feel fear, just not the kind associated with external threats.

While the researchers can't say for sure why the women were able to experience internal, but not external fear, they suggest other parts of the brain must play a role in fear generation overall, and that perhaps the doesn't generate the feeling of fear, but instead is involved in the processing of external threats that lead to a fearful response.

More information: Fear and panic in humans with bilateral amygdala damage, Nature Neuroscience (2013) doi:10.1038/nn.3323 . http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nn.3323.html

Abstract
Decades of research have highlighted the amygdala's influential role in fear. We found that inhalation of 35% CO2 evoked not only fear, but also panic attacks, in three rare patients with bilateral amygdala damage. These results indicate that the amygdala is not required for fear and panic, and make an important distinction between fear triggered by external threats from the environment versus fear triggered internally by CO2.

Press release

Related Stories

The amygdala and fear are not the same thing

Jan 27, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- In a 2007 episode of the television show Boston Legal, a character claimed to have figured out that a cop was racist because his amygdala activated – displaying fear, when they showed him pictures ...

Study sheds light on brain's fear processing center

Nov 25, 2009

Breathing carbon dioxide can trigger panic attacks, but the biological reason for this effect has not been understood. A new study by University of Iowa researchers shows that carbon dioxide increases brain acidity, which ...

Recommended for you

Memory in silent neurons

15 hours ago

According to a generally-accepted model of synaptic plasticity, a neuron that communicates with others of the same kind emits an electrical impulse as well as activating its synapses transiently. This electrical ...

Why your favourite song takes you down memory lane

Aug 28, 2014

Music triggers different functions of the brain, which helps explain why listening to a song you like might be enjoyable but a favourite song may plunge you into nostalgia, scientists said on Thursday.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation of brain boosts memory

Aug 28, 2014

Stimulating a particular region in the brain via non-invasive delivery of electrical current using magnetic pulses, called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, improves memory, reports a new Northwestern Medicine ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

JVK
1 / 5 (1) Feb 04, 2013
Fear induced by increased CO2 may be associated with the change in the acid/base balance, which must be tightly controlled for survival of the species. Similarly, the microRNA/messenger RNA balance must be tightly controlled for epigenesis to result in epistasis (and species diversification). The epigenetic effects of nutrients and water enable bottom-up control of the existing acid/base balance at the start of the experiment. What changes is the top-down epigenetic effect of the CO2, which is linked to the perception of fear and the amygdala. In organisms with no amygdala and no fear perception, behavioral changes still occur, which are associated with the epigenetic effects of nutrients, water, and social odors (called pheromones). Does pheromone-dependent quorum-sensing in microbes represent their fearful perception of an external threat via the same molecular mechanisms involved in threat perception in these subjects, or are the molecular mechanisms species-specific?
dr_talal
not rated yet Feb 05, 2013
Increase CO2 in blood will lead to decrease O2 in blood that supply brain cells and this will lead to high change in acid/base balance in the brian cells lead to firing of neurons in PFC that play role in behaviour and firing the neurons in hippocampus that still undamge so the voulnteers still remembering from what they saw befor in their life how to be near to death and the voulnteers still experience the behaviour that is present in human brains to fight for life its also something present in all type of cells and we shouldn't forget that brain have way to to repeair the damage for the amygdala by firing neurons in the near areas , and i don't think that have somthing to do with epigenetic .