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Fighting Fear: Researchers Seek Targets for Treatment

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The new technology is now helping researchers confirm those suspicions and apply animal research findings to the human brain.

At a major conference sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, Davis and other pioneers in the field recently gathered to share their insights.

Significant progress has been made due to human participation, according to the researchers, because unlike animals, humans can describe their emotions, explains Richard Davidson, PhD, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

"What we are learning is that the amygdala is part of a whole network," Davis says. It is now known that while the amygdala appears to play a subtle yet important role in distinguishing signals of danger, its role appears to be associated with the emotional aspects of danger, rather than the thinking part of the response to fear.

"A face is just a face in the visual cortex, but it becomes an angry or happy face when it reaches the amygdala," explains David Amaral, PhD, a research director at the University of California Medical Center in Davis, who spoke at the conference.

Understanding the different components of fear responses -- both emotional and based on thought -- and how they interact is important for developing treatments, Davis tells WebMD. But in terms of treatment, a major target is getting rid of disruptive memories that can recur and spark fears at any time, he says.

To that end, Davis and his colleagues are now working on the development of compounds to inhibit the reactions triggered by the amygdala. The research is still in its infancy, but someday, they hope these compounds can be used as treatments for a number of fear-related conditions, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is the severe emotional reaction to a traumatic event, such as a flood, fire, war, assault, domestic abuse, or rape. People with PTSD often re-experience the event in the form of recurring nightmares or flashbacks. These events usually follow the exposure to a symbolic trigger, such as a loud noise or an anniversary of the traumatic event.

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