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Study Reveals How Fear Is Processed In The Brain

Update Date: Sep 16, 2014 03:46 AM EDT
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A new study has demonstrated how fear arises in the brain when individuals are exposed to threatening images. 

The study is first to separate emotion from threat by controlling for the dimension of arousal, the emotional reaction provoked (positive or negative) in response to stimuli. 

"We are trying to find where thought exists in the mind," explained John Hart, Jr., M.D., Medical Science Director at the Center for BrainHealth, in a press release. "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."

With the help of electroencephalography (EEG), researchers 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 prioritizes threatening information over other cognitive processes," explained Bambi DeLaRosa, study lead author. "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 traveling 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."

The study is published in the journal Brain and Cognition.

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