When doctors at the University of Iowa prepared a patient to inhale a panic-inducing dose of carbon dioxide, she was fearless. But within seconds of breathing in the mixture, she cried for help, overwhelmed by the sensation that she was suffocating.
The patient, a woman in her 40s known as SM, had an extremely rare condition called Urbach-Wiethe disease that has caused extensive damage to the amygdala, an almond-shaped area in the brain long known for its role in fear. She had not felt terror since getting the disease when she was an adolescent.
In a paper published online on February 3 in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the UI team provides proof that the amygdala is not the only gatekeeper of fear in the human mind. Other regions such as the brainstem, diencephalon, or insular cortex could sense the body’s most primal inner signals of danger when basic survival is threatened.
“This research says panic, or intense fear, is induced somewhere outside of the amygdala,” says John Wemmie, Associate Professor of psychiatry at the UI and senior author on the paper. “This could be a fundamental part of explaining why people have panic attacks.”
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