EEG Study Findings Reveal How Fear is Processed in the Brain

Posted on September 18, 2014

New research from the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas published online today in Brain and Cognition illustrates how fear arises in the brain when individuals are exposed to threatening images. This novel study is the first to separate emotion from threat by controlling for the dimension of arousal, the emotional reaction provoked, whether positive or negative, in response to stimuli. Building on previous animal and human research, the study identifies an electrophysiological marker for threat in the brain.

"We are trying to find where thought exists in the mind," explained John Hart, Jr., M.D., Medical Science Director at the Center for BrainHealth. "We know that groups of neurons firing on and off create a frequency and pattern that tell other areas of the brain what to do. By identifying these rhythms, we can correlate them with a cognitive unit such as fear."

Utilizing electroencephalography (EEG), Dr. Hart's research team identified theta and beta wave activity that signifies the brain's reaction to visually threatening images.

"We have known for a long time that the brain prioritizes threatening information over other cognitive processes," explained Bambi DeLaRosa, study lead author. "These findings show us how this happens. Theta wave activity starts in the back of the brain, in it's fear center - the amygdala - and then interacts with brain's memory center - the hippocampus - before traveling to the frontal lobe where thought processing areas are engaged. At the same time, beta wave activity indicates that the motor cortex is revving up in case the feet need to move to avoid the perceived threat."

EEG results revealed that threatening images evoked an early increase in theta activity in the occipital lobe (the area in the brain where visual information is processed), followed by a later increase in theta power in the frontal lobe (where higher mental functions such as thinking, decision-making, and planning occur). A left lateralized desynchronization of the beta band, the wave pattern associated with motor behavior (like the impulse to run), also consistently appeared in the threatening condition.

This study will serve as a foundation for future work that will explore normal versus abnormal fear associated with an object in other atypical populations including individuals with PTSD.


Category(s):Fear

Source material from Centre for Brain Health


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