Scientists Discover a New Brain Circuit When It Has to Decide Whether It’s Fight or Flight Time


Researchers at the National Institutes of Health studied mice and how their brain reacted when meeting a threat. The study was published in the journal Nature.

Ph.D. Jim Gnadt and program director at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) stated:

“Being able to manipulate specific circuits can uncover surprising relationships between brain areas and provide great insight into how the sensory, emotional, and behavioral centers work together to drive reactions.”

Fighting or Fleeing?

The team of researchers was led by Ph.D. Andrew Huberman, professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology – Stanford University (California). He and his team investigated how animals responded to visual threats by looking at the role of the ventral midline thalamus (vMT). The thalamus is the part of the brain that receives sensory information. It then sends that information to different parts of the brain after sorting it out.

Dr. Huberman and his team looked at the way vMT was activated in lab mice when it saw a threat. The threat mice saw was a black circle getting larger over the cage. This made the mice believe something was hovering above them. When they saw the threat, mice froze or hid away, sometimes rattling the tail to show an aggressive response to the threat.

The researchers used complex tools to give the mice specific drugs that could turn on and off the vMT. In mice that had vMT off, the mice were still frozen into place or hiding away, but no longer aggressive. When vMT was increased, the mice were shaking their tails more and didn’t freeze or hid that much.

Dr. Huberman’s team also discovered that the information from vMT gets to either the basolateral amygdala (BLA) or the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). Each circuit influenced how the mice reacted. If the circuit that went to BLA was turned on, mice froze more, and if the mPFC circuit was active, mice shook their tail more.

Understanding Human Brain and Its Different Disorders

Dr. Huberman explains how their research can help scientists know more about human behavior:

“This study may help explain why acts of courage, such as standing up for yourself or for a cause, or a physical challenge can feel empowering. Experiencing that good feeling can also make it more likely to respond to future threats in a similar way.”

He also added that the more we know on vMT, the closer we can get to understanding different conditions, “such as generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder and we are now pursuing the study of the human vMT for that reason.”


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