The Frightened Brain


    Credit: Kirstie Whitaker

    Do you tend to ‘sweat the small stuff’? Chronic anxiety and similar neurological disorders affect over 25 million Americans. Researchers at UC Berkeley have identified two distinct pathways in the brain that can predict an individual’s susceptibility to anxiety. In this collaborative study between the Bishop lab at UC Berkeley and Cambridge University, fMRI images of the brain were taken while subjects viewed a computer-generated image of a person in a room just before a loud scream is heard. For some trials, the virtual figure in the room moves to cover its ears just before the scream, while other trials the gesture does not predict the sound, keeping subjects in a perpetual state of anticipation. Some participants with abnormal fear response displayed a greater reaction to the virtual figure covering its ears – the anticipation of the loud scream created an overactivity in the amygdala region of the brain, while others showed less activation in the ventral prefrontal cortex, a region responsible for decreasing the fear response after generation. These are two entirely separate mechanisms, but failure in either one resulted in a heightened fear response. This new model of anxiety – activation vs. regulation – can better guide targeted therapies for anxiety disorders in the future. By understanding which mechanism is the source of increased fear response in an individual, the success of different treatments can be better predicted.

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