The study adds to evidence that primal fear responses do not depend on the amygdala – long a favored region of fear researchers – but on an obscure corner of the primeval brain.
A group of neuroscientists led by Larry Swanson of the University of Southern California studied the brain activity of rats and mice exposed to cats, or to rival rodents defending their territory.
Both experiences activated neurons in the dorsal premammillary nucleus, part of an ancient brain region called the hypothalamus.
Swanson’s group then made tiny lesions in the same area. Those rodents behaved far differently.
“These animals are not afraid of a predator,” Swanson said. “It’s almost like they go up and shake hands with a predator.”
Lost fear of cats in rodents with such lesions has been observed before. More important for studies of social interaction, the study replicated the finding for male rats that wandered into another male’s territory. Instead of adopting the usual passive pose, the intruder frequently stood upright and boxed with the resident male, avoided exposing his neck and back, and came back for more even when losing.
“It’s amazing that these lesions appear to abolish innate fear responses,” said Swanson, who added: “The same basic circuitry is found in primates and people that we find in rats and mice.”
Well, being able to switch this on and off would be interesting. The military might love an army of people with “no fear” brain lesions.