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Science: A wheel of fear in our head

Jerome Burne hears of the dramatic insights into the working of emotion yielded by a study of rats
THERE are certain things you do not expect to find in the briefcase of a heating engineer. One of these is a book on the neuranatomy of the emotions. But had you sneaked a peep inside the briefcase of Derek Goldsmith, any time in the last year you would have seen a well-thumbed copy of The Emotional Brain by Joseph LeDoux.

But Goldsmith, now retired and rich having sold the business, wasn't just a unexpected fan of cutting-edge brain research. So impressed is he by the product, that he has bought himself some research. He has given pounds 250,000 to the London School of Economics to fund a three-year programme to develop LeDoux's ideas. "I'm hoping we may have a breakthrough in understanding schizophrenia," he says.

Goldsmith is not the only one raving about The Emotional Brain, to be published here later this month (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Our own most media-friendly brain scientist Dr Susan Greenfield predicts it will inspire a "sea-change in the way we think about emotions" and in the States it has already prompted a radical shake-up of the neurosciences.

"The emotions have always had a bad press," says LeDoux, a professor at the Centre for Neural Science at New York University. "Plato saw them as wild horses who had to be controlled by the charioteer of reason, Christianity regarded them as a fertile source of sin and recently cognitive science has constructed a model of how the brain works that largely ignores them." But that is beginning to change.

Previous researchers, he believes, have made the mistake of treating the emotions as if they were a single system. "Articles and text books on the brain all talk about the limbic system as the emotional centre of the brain," says LeDoux, "but that's just wrong, for all sorts of reasons. Just as there's no perception centre, we process sights and sounds in different parts of the brain. I suspect that each of the basic emotions has its own system and pathways." So LeDoux set out to map the anatomy of fear, a phenomenon common to all vertebrate species.

The world of brain research has become so high-tech, with brain scanners showing neurones lighting up in brilliant colours, that the tools he used have a distinctly old-fashioned feel to them. Rats in a cage, electric shocks, painstaking trial-and-error removal of minute bits of brain and a fluorescent orange dye to show where the nerve pathways end up. But, combined with an awful lot of patience, they were enough.

The end result was a far clearer picture of where fear is handled in the brain and some surprises. The hub of the system is the amygdala - two tangles of neurones, shaped like an almond and about the size of a chick pea, near the centre of the brain. "We found that it has connections to planning centres, action centres and the hormone system," says LeDoux. "It's the centre of a wheel of fear."

Rats with the amygdala removed will saunter nonchalantly past a cat, when normally they would freeze, their heart rate would soar and their fur would stand on end. Most interesting, LeDoux discovered a previously unsuspected route from the senses, in this case the auditory system, direct to the amygdala. "This was important," he explains, "because for at least 100 years many psychologists believed that for us to register a sight or a sound as frightening we had to be aware of it consciously. What this shows is that you can be frightened of something without knowing what it is."

The value of this back door route is speed. A message from one of the senses, say the sound of a twig snapping, can reach the amygdala in half the time it takes for the impulse to travel to the thinking judging part of the brain and then down to the amygdala. In the wild those few milliseconds could make the difference between life and death. But it's a route that can also lead us astray.

"That gut feeling you get that something is wrong may not be revealing an inner truth," says LeDoux, "but a demonstration of the way we are all slaves to past emotional learning." Another idea is that this fast, low road to the amygdala becomes the favoured one in certain disorders like post-traumatic shock syndrome when a single sight or sound can unleash a wave of terror. The slower high road via the cortex allows a more reasonable response. It is insights into psychiatric problems like those that has prompted giving to the cause of further research into the subject.

Even more intriguing is a finding that may lead to improved treatment for phobias. LeDoux's rats all learned a fear response by getting an electric shock that was linked with a sound. Normally rats, and humans in similar situations, gradually lose their fear of the sound on its own when it stops being followed by a shock. But one groups of rats never lost their fear.

Many of the rats had bits of their brain removed before being put in the cage with the sound and the shock. "Those who had damage to a part of the prefrontal cortex," says LeDoux, "never lost their fear response, no matter how many times they heard the sound on its own." It seems possible that people with an irrational fear they just cannot get rid of may also have a malfunction of their medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved with planning and judgement.

This improved mapping of the pathways of fear hold out the possibility of more effectively targeted drugs. At the moment pharmaceuticals like Valium and Prozac act very crudely. Valium damps down the whole brain, which is why you often feel sleepy as well as less anxious, while Prozac boosts serotonin everywhere. "It should be possible to find the genes that code for cells in the amygdala and use that to deliver a drug directly there and nowhere else," says LeDoux.

Of course this work is only a beginning, as LeDoux is the first to admit. "Someone else is going to have to trace what is going on with the other emotions like anger or love," he says.

What LeDoux has done, brilliantly or disastrously depending on your point of view, is to side-step one of the biggest issues for psychology. When we talk about our everyday emotions we mean feelings - the rush that goes with anger, that tight sinking feel of fear - but it is precisely these subjective feelings that he has ignored."From an evolutionary perspective fear, or any emotion, is a system that has evolved to improve an animals chance of survival," he says. "Being consciously aware of those messages is a later add-on." Fear still does its job, even if you aren't conscious of it. In fact many of our fear responses initially take place at an unconscious level." LeDoux has found a way to get a handle on an emotion, without having to tackle the insoluble problem of consciousness.