Researchers discover link between fear, sound perception

June 30, 2013

Anyone who's ever heard a Beethoven sonata or a Beatles song knows how powerfully sound can affect our emotions. But it can work the other way as well – our emotions can actually affect how we hear and process sound. When certain types of sounds become associated in our brains with strong emotions, hearing similar sounds can evoke those same feelings, even far removed from their original context. It's a phenomenon commonly seen in combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in whom harrowing memories of the battlefield can be triggered by something as common as the sound of thunder. But the brain mechanisms responsible for creating those troubling associations remain unknown. Now, a pair of researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has discovered how fear can actually increase or decrease the ability to discriminate among sounds depending on context, providing new insight into the distorted perceptions of victims of PTSD.

Their study is published in Nature Neuroscience.

"Emotions are closely linked to perception and very often our really helps us deal with reality," says senior study author Maria N. Geffen, PhD, assistant professor of Otorhinolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery and Neuroscience at Penn. "For example, a fear response helps you escape potentially and react quickly. But there are also situations where things can go wrong in the way the fear response develops. That's what happens in anxiety and also in PTSD—the response to the events is generalized to the point where the starts getting developed to a very broad range of stimuli."

Geffen and the first author of the study, Mark Aizenberg, PhD, a in her laboratory, used emotional conditioning in mice to investigate how hearing acuity (the ability to distinguish between tones of different frequencies) can change following a traumatic event, known as . In these experiments, which are based on classical (Pavlovian) conditioning, animals learn to distinguish between potentially dangerous and safe sounds—called "emotional discrimination learning." This type of conditioning tends to result in relatively poor learning, but Aizenberg and Geffen designed a series of learning tasks intended to create progressively greater emotional discrimination in the mice, varying the difficulty of the task. What really interested them was how different levels of emotional discrimination would affect hearing acuity – in other words, how emotional responses affect perception and discrimination of sounds. This study established the link between emotions and perception of the world – something that has not been understood before.

The researchers found that, as expected, fine emotional learning tasks produced greater learning specificity than tests in which the tones were farther apart in frequency. As Geffen explains, "The animals presented with sounds that were very far apart generalize the fear that they developed to the danger tone over a whole range of frequencies, whereas the animals presented with the two sounds that were very similar exhibited specialization of their emotional response. Following the fine conditioning task, they figured out that it's a very narrow range of pitches that are potentially dangerous."

When pitch discrimination abilities were measured in the animals, the mice with more specific responses displayed much finer auditory acuity than the mice who were frightened by a broader range of frequencies. "There was a relationship between how much their emotional response generalized and how well they could tell different tones apart," says Geffen. "In the animals that specialized their emotional response, pitch discrimination actually became sharper. They could discriminate two tones that they previously could not tell apart."

Another interesting finding of this study is that the effects of emotional learning on hearing perception were mediated by a specific brain region, the auditory cortex. The auditory cortex has been known as an important area responsible for auditory plasticity. Surprisingly, Aizenberg and Geffen found that the auditory cortex did not play a role in emotional learning. Likely, the specificity of emotional learning is controlled by the amygdala and sub-cortical auditory areas. "We know the auditory cortex is involved, we know that the emotional response is important so the amygdala is involved, but how do the amygdala and cortex interact together?" says Geffen. "Our hypothesis is that the amygdala and cortex are modifying subcortical auditory processing areas. The sensory cortex is responsible for the changes in frequency discrimination, but it's not necessary for developing specialized or generalized emotional responses. So it's kind of a puzzle."

Solving that puzzle promises new insight into the causes and possible treatment of PTSD, and the question of why some individuals develop it and others subjected to the same events do not. "We think there's a strong link between mechanisms that control emotional learning, including fear generalization, and the brain mechanisms responsible for PTSD, where generalization of fear is abnormal," Geffen notes. Future research will focus on defining and studying that link.

Explore further: Interaction between auditory cortex and amygdala responsible for our response to unpleasant sounds, research finds

More information: Bidirectional effects of aversive learning on perceptual acuity are mediated by the sensory cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nn.3443

Related Stories

Interaction between auditory cortex and amygdala responsible for our response to unpleasant sounds, research finds

October 10, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—Heightened activity between the emotional and auditory parts of the brain explains why the sound of chalk on a blackboard or a knife on a bottle is so unpleasant.

Researchers pinpoint brain mechanisms that make the auditory system sensitive to behaviorally relevant sounds

April 2, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—How do we hear? More specifically, how does the auditory center of the brain discern important sounds – such as communication from members of the same species – from relatively irrelevant background ...

Losing money, emotions and evolution

June 12, 2012
Financial loss can lead to irrational behavior. Now, research by Weizmann Institute scientists reveals that the effects of loss go even deeper: Loss can compromise our early perception and interfere with our grasp of the ...

Reduced recognition of fear and sadness in post-traumatic stress disorder

August 16, 2011
Facial expressions convey strong cues for someone's emotional state and the ability to interpret these cues is crucial in social interaction. This ability is known to be compromised in many psychiatric and neurological disorders, ...

Rewired visual input to sound-processing part of the brain leads to compromised hearing

August 22, 2012
Scientists at Georgia State University have found that the ability to hear is lessened when, as a result of injury, a region of the brain responsible for processing sounds receives both visual and auditory inputs.

For combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, 'fear circuitry' in the brain never rests

May 18, 2013
Chronic trauma can inflict lasting damage to brain regions associated with fear and anxiety. Previous imaging studies of people with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, have shown that these brain regions can over-or ...

Recommended for you

The neural codes for body movements

July 21, 2017
A small patch of neurons in the brain can encode the movements of many body parts, according to researchers in the laboratory of Caltech's Richard Andersen, James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, Tianqiao and Chrissy ...

Faulty support cells disrupt communication in brains of people with schizophrenia

July 20, 2017
New research has identified the culprit behind the wiring problems in the brains of people with schizophrenia. When researchers transplanted human brain cells generated from individuals diagnosed with childhood-onset schizophrenia ...

Scientists discover combined sensory map for heat, humidity in fly brain

July 20, 2017
Northwestern University neuroscientists now can visualize how fruit flies sense and process humidity and temperature together through a "sensory map" within their brains, according to new research.

Scientists reveal how patterns of brain activity direct specific body movements

July 20, 2017
New research by Columbia scientists offers fresh insight into how the brain tells the body to move, from simple behaviors like walking, to trained movements that may take years to master. The discovery in mice advances knowledge ...

Team traces masculinization in mice to estrogen receptor in inhibitory neurons

July 20, 2017
Researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) have opened a black box in the brain whose contents explain one of the remarkable yet mysterious facts of life.

Speech language therapy delivered through the Internet leads to similar improvements as in-person treatment

July 20, 2017
Telerehabilitation helps healthcare professionals reach more patients in need, but some worry it doesn't offer the same quality of care as in-person treatment. This isn't the case, according to recent research by Baycrest.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.