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New Study Could Improve Anxiety Medication

A little bit of fear can protect us from danger, but too much can cause serious psychological discomfort and in some cases mental health issues. New research uncovers the brain circuit involved in processing fear, which could eventually lead to new treatment options for the 18% of Americans who are affected by anxiety disorders each year.

Humans share very similar brain make-up with other mammals and until now, scientists have studied animals when researching fear processing. Animal research has shown that the amygdala plays a key role in processing fear, while the hippocampus helps form memories of emotional events. Dr. Jack Lin, a professor of neurology at the University of California-Irvine, set out to examine the neural pathways involved in fear and anxiety processing in humans.

Researchers surgically inserted electrodes into the amygdala and hippocampus of nine volunteers, who were asked to watch scenes from horror movies. Lin and his team recorded the participants’ neural activity.

Jie Zheng, the study’s first author explains,” Neurons in the amygdala fired 120 millisecond earlier than the hippocampus. It is truly remarkable that we can measure the brain dynamics with such precision. Further, the traffic patterns between the two brain regions are controlled by the emotion of the movie; a unidirectional flow of information from the amygdala to the hippocampus only occurred when people were watching fearful movie clips, but not while watching peaceful scenes.”

“This is the first study in humans to delineate the mechanism by which our brain processes fear at the circuitry level,” says Dr. Lin. “This has huge implications for treating neuropsychiatric disorders. For example, current drugs available to treat anxiety disorder bind to large areas of the brain, leading to unwanted side effects. Our hope is that we will one day be able to target and manipulate the precise amygdala-hippocampal circuit involved in processing negative emotions while preserving positive ones.”


Jill Hamilton, Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation

Jill Hamilton has been the Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation since 2014. She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and a Speech Communication Minor from The University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. Since working at the foundation, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition, Nebraska LOSS Advisory Committee, The Omaha Metro Hoarding Taskforce, The Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, Nebraska State Conference Planning Committee, is Chair of the Nebraska LOSS Teams Conference Planning Committee, and serves as the Outreach Coordinator for the Metro Area LOSS Team.