Are YOU easily scared? Scientists pinpoint brain region that controls fear of the unknown

October 19, 2015

Entering a dark, unfamiliar room can fill some people with dread, while others step in without thinking twice.

Now scientists have discovered the brain structure called the amygdala could help explain why.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons that has been linked to conditions such as anxiety, autism and depression.

Earlier work by a team at the California Institute of Technology showed that the amygdala plays an important role in responses to clear threats, like a snake or a charging tiger.

But it’s not known if it also plays a role in these more ambiguous but potentially scary situations.

In a paper recently published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers Laura Harrison and Ralph Adolphs examined the impact of amygdala lesions.

Previous studies have shown that monkeys with amygdala lesions display a tendency to actually approach stimuli that are normally considered threatening.

The researchers asked control subjects and three subjects with amygdala damage to indicate the degree to which they found pictures of people with or without obscured central facial features either trustworthy or threatening.

Those with amygdala damage revealed a greater tendency than others to rate obscured faces as more approachable than whole faces.

According to the researchers, the findings suggest that amygdala lesions lead to a tendency to evaluate situations positively, even in the face of the unknown.

The results also suggests that the amygdala plays a significant role in detecting threats.

This, the researchers say, is critical in the ongoing effort to treat anxiety and similar life-altering conditions.


A spice commonly used in curry could help erase bad memories, according to a study.
Curcumin, a bright-yellow compound found in the root of the Indian spice turmeric, prevented new fear memories being stored in the brain, and also removed pre-existing fear memories, researchers found.

It is hoped that the findings will help develop treatments for people suffering with psychological disorders.

Psychologists from the City University of New York trained rats to become scared when they heard a particular sound. Scientists assumed the creatures were frightened when they froze.

Hours later, when the same sound was played to the rats, those who had been given ordinary food froze.

Yet the rats fed the curcumin-rich diet didn’t freeze, suggesting their fearful memories had been erased.

Professor Glenn Schafe, who led the study, said: ‘This suggests that people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological disorders that are characterised by fearful memories may benefit substantially from a curcumin-enriched diet.’

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