Neurobiology

A new image for fear and emotion

The study of emotion is enjoying a renaissance. Despite the importance of emotion in behaviour — indeed, in survival itself — it had largely been ignored as a field of study until recently. Then, several groups identified the anatomy, physiology and chemistry of the circuits that underlie fear in animals and humans, creating new possibilities for understanding emotions and human mental illness1,2. Not surprisingly, as for other brain-behaviour relationships, it has become clear that discrete emotions map onto specific neural circuits in the brain, and this view is now supported by papers3,4 on pages 467 and 470 of this issue, along with two reports5,6 in Neuron. These show that the amygdala, a complex structure within the temporal lobes of the brain, is involved in one form of emotional memory.

Survival depends on the ability of an organism to respond to threat or reward, and to predict the circumstances under which they are likely to occur. Thus, emotional circuits must appraise a situation and initiate adaptive physiological and behavioural responses. To link new predictive stimuli to these adaptive repertoires, emotional circuits must be intimately involved with the formation of memory.

The ability to activate fear circuits in the brain with a neutral stimulus such as a tone (see box, overleaf) has allowed the relevant pathways to be analysed using rats with carefully placed lesions in their brains. Such studies have shown that the amygdala is critical to fear responses and emotional memory1,2. In humans, examination of patients with lesions in the amygdala suggested that the amygdala is involved in fear. Moreover, studies using functional neuroimaging have shown7 that the human amygdala is activated in response to visual processing of fearful faces, even when a subject does not consciously realize that he has seen a face. This can be done by presenting a brief fearful stimulus, immediately followed by a longer neutral masking stimulus8.

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Hyman, S. A new image for fear and emotion. Nature 393, 417–418 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/30855

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