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Neural correlates of fear: insights from neuroimaging

Authors Garfinkel S, Critchley H

Received 6 May 2014

Accepted for publication 19 June 2014

Published 1 December 2014 Volume 2014:3 Pages 111—125

DOI https://doi.org/10.2147/NAN.S35915

Checked for plagiarism Yes

Review by Single-blind

Peer reviewer comments 4


Sarah N Garfinkel,1,2 Hugo D Critchley1,2

1Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, 2Department of Psychiatry, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK

Abstract: Fear anticipates a challenge to one's well-being and is a reaction to the risk of harm. The expression of fear in the individual is a constellation of physiological, behavioral, cognitive, and experiential responses. Fear indicates risk and will guide adaptive behavior, yet fear is also fundamental to the symptomatology of most psychiatric disorders. Neuroimaging studies of normal and abnormal fear in humans extend knowledge gained from animal experiments. Neuroimaging permits the empirical evaluation of theory (emotions as response tendencies, mental states, and valence and arousal dimensions), and improves our understanding of the mechanisms of how fear is controlled by both cognitive processes and bodily states. Within the human brain, fear engages a set of regions that include insula and anterior cingulate cortices, the amygdala, and dorsal brain-stem centers, such as periaqueductal gray matter. This same fear matrix is also implicated in attentional orienting, mental planning, interoceptive mapping, bodily feelings, novelty and motivational learning, behavioral prioritization, and the control of autonomic arousal. The stereotyped expression of fear can thus be viewed as a special construction from combinations of these processes. An important motivator for understanding neural fear mechanisms is the debilitating clinical expression of anxiety. Neuroimaging studies of anxiety patients highlight the role of learning and memory in pathological fear. Posttraumatic stress disorder is further distinguished by impairment in cognitive control and contextual memory. These processes ultimately need to be targeted for symptomatic recovery. Neuroscientific knowledge of fear has broader relevance to understanding human and societal behavior. As yet, only some of the insights into fear, anxiety, and avoidance at the individual level extrapolate to groups and populations and can be meaningfully applied to economics, prejudice, and politics. Fear is ultimately a contagious social emotion.

Keywords: amygdala, anxiety, arousal, autonomic, emotion, phobia

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