A team of researchers from Harvard, Columbia, and Rutgers universities has found the seat of fear. It’s located in a pea-sized area deep in the brain of all mammals, from gerbils, to lions, to humans. And it’s involved in both inborn fear and the dread we acquire from dealing with people and things that hurt us. The scientists already knew that fear forms in the amygdala (a- mig-da-la), an almond-shaped mass of gray matter. But a closer look revealed the presence of a gene that produces a protein known as “stathmin,” a stimulant of fear and anxiety. The scientists’ investigations were done with mice because they involved genetic engineering and surgical slicing of the brain.
“This is the first time it has been shown that the protein stathmin is linked to brain circuits that register both inborn alarm and acquired memories of fear,” says Vadim Bolshakov of Harvard Medical School and Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. “Because it is so essential for survival, memory for fear is easily established, very resistant to extinction, and normally lasts for a lifetime.”
The finding provides a deeper understanding of how learning and memory take place. It also could lead to new treatments for a variety of mental disorders including generalized anxiety, panic, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the post- traumatic stress disorder that is being brought back from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Besides Bolshakov and his colleagues at McLean Hospital, the research team involved Eric Kandel and colleagues at Columbia University, and Gleb Shumyatsky and colleagues at Rutgers. Kandel won the 2000 Nobel Prize in medicine. They reported their results in the November 2005 issue of the journal Cell.