Scientists study how fear is processed in brain

WASHINGTON (TIP): Scientists have mapped brain activity to illustrate how fear arises when individuals are exposed to threatening images. Researchers from the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas built on previous animal and human research to identify an electrophysiological marker for threat in the brain. “We are trying to find where thought exists in the mind,” said John Hart, Medical Science Director at the Center for BrainHealth.

“We know that groups of neurons firing on and off create a frequency and pattern that tell other areas of the brain what to do. By identifying these rhythms, we can correlate them with a cognitive unit such as fear,” he said. Utilising electroencephalography (EEG), Hart’s research team identified theta and beta wave activity that signifies the brain’s reaction to visually threatening images. “We have known for a long time that the brain prioritises threatening information over other cognitive processes,” said Bambi DeLaRosa, lead author of the study. “These findings show us how this happens.

Theta wave activity starts in the back of the brain, in it’s fear center — the amygdala — and then interacts with brain’s memory center — the hippocampus — before travelling to the frontal lobe where thought processing areas are engaged. “At the same time, beta wave activity indicates that the motor cortex is revving up in case the feet need to move to avoid the perceived threat,” DeLaRosa said. For the study, 26 adults (19 female, 7 male), ages 19-30 were shown 224 randomised images that were either unidentifiably scrambled or real pictures.

Real pictures were separated into two categories: threatening (weapons, combat, nature or animals) and nonthreatening (pleasant situations, food, nature or animals).

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