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The Role Of The Amygdala In Fear And Panic

2081 words - 9 pages

The Role of the Amygdala in Fear and Panic

The definition of fear has proved to be an elusive mystery plaguing scientists. While there is much agreement as to the physiological effects of fear, the neural pathways and connections that bring upon these effects are not well understood. From the evolutionary standpoint, the theory is that fear is a neural circuit that has been designed to keep the organism alive in dangerous situations (1). How does it all work? Learning and responding to stimuli that warn of danger involves neural pathways that send information about the outside world to the amygdala, which in turn, determines the significance of the stimulus and triggers emotional ...view middle of the document...

The amygdala receives projections from frontal cortex, association cortex, temporal lobe, olfactory system and other parts of the limbic system. In return, it sends its afferents to frontal and prefrontal cortex, orbitifrontal cortex, hypothalmus, hippocampus, as well as brain stem nuclei (20). After this point, neither the concrete definition as to the extent of the amygdala is not clear, nor is the exact function of each of its subgroups. In the amygdala region alone, there is much controversy surrounding the nuclear subgroups, resulting in classifications that range between 5 and 22 different groups within the amygdala itself. Despite all of this, there are four main groups that have been universally agreed upon. These are the Basolateral, Lateral, Central, and Basomedial nuclei. The amygdala is considered to be the key component to the limbic system, a term that has also been regarded with much recent controversy by researchers in the field of emotions. One of the biggest surprises from LeDoux's work is that there may be no such thing as the limbic system – a brain structure that has been supposed to underlie emotion and motivation. "All students are taught about the limbic system," LeDoux said, "but in my opinion, it's no longer a valid concept." (2) Reasons for his assertations center around the investigations of the mechanisms by which the amygdala processes information regarding threats and fear. The classic model of the limbic system encompasses the hippocampus, the amygdala, and a few other small structures. These structures supposedly receive sensory input from the outside world – sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste, as well as from the viscera. When these sensations are integrated in the limbic system, emotional experiences are thought to occur (2). While the fear circuit does indeed appear to incorporate the amygdala, the hippocampus and the other limbic structures are not involved. They are bypassed in the fear circuit. But fear and its emotional memories are not the only things controlled by the amygdala. The amygdala has up to 22 distinct regions and only two so far have been clearly implicated in fear (2). The flight and fear responses may be obtained from the rostral regions of the amygdala, including the lateral nucleus, the periamygdaloid area, and the central nucleus. Defense or aggressive reactions could be obtained from the medial and caudal aspects of the amygdala (4). These reactions have been observed by the selective stimulation of amygdaloid nuclei in laboratory animals.

In a related process, another responsibility of the amygdala is the suppression of the periaqueductal gray. The periaqueductal gray is another major structure involved in the interpretation of fear. It is a large structure in the midbrain, consisting of small to medium neurons surrounding the aqueduct of Silvus, otherwise known as the cerebral aqueduct. The periaqueductal gray is thought to be involved in protection and defensive reactions...

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