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Study charts origins of fear

A team of researchers led by the University of Toronto has charted how and where a painful event becomes permanently etched in the brain - a discovery that has implications for pain-related emotional disorders such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

U of T physiology professor Min Zhuo and his colleagues Professor Bong-Kiun Kaang of Seoul National University in South Korea, and Professor Bao-Ming Li of Fudan University in China have identified where emotional fear memory and pain begin by studying the biochemical processes in a different part of the brain. In a paper published in the Sept.15 issue of Neuron the researchers use mice to show how receptors activated in the pre-frontal cortex, the portion of the brain believed to be involved with higher intellectual functions, play a critical role in the development of fear. Previous research had pointed to activation in the hippocampus, an area buried in the forebrain that regulates emotion and memory, as the origin of fear memory.

"This is critical as it changes how and where scientists thought fear was developed," says Zhuo, the EJLB-CIHR Michael Smith Chair in Neurosciences and Mental Health. "By understanding the biomolecular mechanisms behind fear, we could potentially create therapeutic ways to ease emotional pain in people. Imagine reducing the ability of distressing events, such as amputations, to be permanently imprinted in the brain."

Zhuo says that fear memory does not occur immediately after a painful event; rather, it takes time for the memory to become part of our consciousness. The initial event activates NMDA receptors - molecules on cells that receive messages and then produce specific physiological effect in the cell - which are normally quiet but triggered when the brain receives a shock. Over time, the receptors leave their imprint on brain cells.

By delivering shocks to mice, the researchers activated the NMDA receptors and traced a subunit of the molecule -
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Source:University of Toronto


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