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How the gut feeling shapes fear
Date:5/22/2014

An unlit, deserted car park at night, footsteps in the gloom. The heart beats faster and the stomach ties itself in knots. We often feel threatening situations in our stomachs. While the brain has long been viewed as the centre of all emotions, researchers are increasingly trying to get to the bottom of this proverbial gut instinct.

It is not only the brain that controls processes in our abdominal cavity; our stomach also sends signals back to the brain. At the heart of this dialogue between the brain and abdomen is the vagus nerve, which transmits signals in both directions from the brain to our internal organs (via the so called efferent nerves) and from the stomach back to our brain (via the afferent nerves). By cutting the afferent nerve fibres in rats, a team of scientists led by Urs Meyer, a researcher in the Group of ETH Zurich professor Wolfgang Langhans, turned this two-way communication into a one-way street, enabling the researchers to get to the bottom of the role played by gut instinct. In the test animals, the brain was still able to control processes in the abdomen, but no longer received any signals from the other direction.

Less fear without gut instinct

In the behavioural studies, the researchers determined that the rats were less wary of open spaces and bright lights compared with controlled rats with an intact vagus nerve. "The innate response to fear appears to be influenced significantly by signals sent from the stomach to the brain," says Meyer.

Nevertheless, the loss of their gut instinct did not make the rats completely fearless: the situation for learned fear behaviour looked different. In a conditioning experiment, the rats learned to link a neutral acoustic stimulus a sound to an unpleasant experience. Here, the signal path between the stomach and brain appeared to play no role, with the test animals learning the association as well as the control animals. If, however, the researchers swi
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Contact: Urs Meyer
urs-meyer@ethz.ch
41-788-981-790
ETH Zurich
Source:Eurekalert

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