Steve Maren, the Claude H. Everett Jr. '47 Chair of Liberal Arts professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Texas A&M University, and his Emotion and Memory Systems Laboratory (EMSL) have made a breakthrough discovery in the process of fear relapse.
‘This research finds that fear that has been removed from the mind can come back to memory because a mechanism in the brain is working against this process of fear extinction.’
Maren said this discovery could prove helpful for clinicians treating disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"Patients often undergo exposure therapy to reduce their fear of situations and stimuli associated with trauma," Maren said. "Although exposure therapy is often effective, pathological fear and anxiety are known to return or 'relapse' under a number of circumstances
. This often occurs, for example, when trauma-related stimuli, which have come to be tolerated during therapy, are unexpectedly experienced outside of the clinical context. Relapse of fear after therapy has been estimated to occur in upwards of two-thirds of patients undergoing exposure therapy."
In their research, Maren and his team studied the relationship between three parts of the brain: the hippocampus, which is involved in memory; the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in executive control and regulation; and the amygdala, which is involved in emotion. While the neurocircuit between the three has long been known to process fear, this study has been able to pinpoint connections between the hippocampus and a specific type of cell in the prefrontal cortex that is involved in a relapse of fear
Travis Goode, a graduate student and member of the research team, said, "This has wide-spread implications for treating fear disorders in the future, as we now know what part of the brain to target."
Other members of the research team from Texas A&M include Jingji Jin, Thomas F. Giustino, Qian Wang, Gillian M. Acca, and Paul J. Fitzgerald. EMSL also collaborated with the Sah Laboratory in Australia, led by Pankaj Sah.
The complete research is published in the journal Nature Neuroscience