by Rakshita Jaiswal
Substantially everyone has a favourite everything- animal, insect, destination, hobby, adventure, colour, food, desire, etc. What makes this supposedly customary fact, extravagantly bizarre is the possibility that your favourite most activity, thing or person might just be the scariest existing thing for someone else! Ever come across a situation arising from severe, persistent feeling of fear and anxiety triggered by any specific object, situation, activity or environment? Or ever tried to avoid those triggers? Well, whatever situation penetrated your mind right now might just be a substratum to your phobia exploration mission. Surprisingly, we have an enormous number of phobias ranging from “Anthophobia” (intense fear of flowers) to “Trypophobia” (fear of irregular patterns or a cluster of small holes). Fear, which can be expressed after conditioning or innately, is triggered when a danger or any stimulus predicting immediate danger is perceived. It is an emotion of anticipation that is triggered when a situation that is at risk for our safety and/or the safety of others is perceived, through either exteroceptive inputs or the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems (interoceptive inputs). These stimuli can evoke “fight or flight” body reactions, or even “tend-and-befriend” responses that makes people seek help or try to make the situation less uncomfortable, in order to prepare the body to face this danger.
Fears can be born through first hand experiences, like feeling pain or informationally through stories, but we can also learn fear vicariously. What do you think is the scariest thing possible? Sometimes, while exposure therapy can help people overcome their fears, the same principles can be used to create fears. Some researchers from Clinical Psychology and Neuroscience have demonstrated such experiments on people to help them explore their fears. The protocol for fear conditioning requires a person being electrically shocked and startled by the sound of a human scream in connections to visuals the person sees on a screen. These visuals can be anything and of any shape, size or colour. Bioelectric sensors monitor the body’s physiological reactions, for instance- perspiration or breathing, an indirect measure of fear that one cannot consciously control. The objective of this procedure is to condition the person to be scared of something that the person has never feared before. A mundane- harmless geometric shape, something others might not be threatened of at all can be an example too! The human brain can learn to be afraid of almost anything.
So what exactly happens in the brain during fear conditioning? Well according to scientists, what we know so far is that over millions of years of evolution, we’ve developed some functional defensive circuits in our brain and the amygdala rules on the front of the memory systems of the hippocampus, it plays an important role in determining what the danger is of something in the world. It tells us what we should be remembering and learning that is important to survival. According to scientists, our brain actually has two amygdalae (one in each hemisphere). It is the centre of fear research, which covers human behaviour ranging from the risk averse to high risk-takers. Ancient humans who avoided danger and survived long enough to reproduce became our ancestors, whereas we’re organisms that instinctively avoid and are averse to potentially dangerous sensations that trigger feelings like pain and suffocation. However, we do not have to learn to not like them. Whenever an experience is associated with an innate aversion, it alerts the amygdala and weaves a powerful connection between that experience and the innate aversion. That experience now stay trapped in the amygdala and becomes a ‘phobia’.
According to some ongoing research, under normal resting conditions, an extensive γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) network inhibits the amygdala and amygdala neurons exhibit low firing rates. Hence the reduction of GABAergic activity is required to lower the threshold for amygdala activation and facilitates it, which is necessary to expression of fear. While fear is considered as an adaptive component of response to stimuli that are potentially threatening; too much, inappropriate or unnecessary fear can account for chronic psychiatric disorders like PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and phobias. Understanding and analysing the neurobiological meaning of fear is therefore important and critical at elucidating the mechanisms improving treatments of these pathologies that are fear-related.
Phobias being the eccentrically peculiar disorders have however unrolled the scope of “Neuro biotechnology” for their detection and diagnosis by using various cut-edge technologies in the field of biotechnology. The term “neurobiotechnology” deals with science that involves studies related to physiology, biochemistry, anatomy or molecular biology of nerves and nervous tissue and also covers a lot of various devices used in or for neurosurgeries. It gives limelight on the brain development in the aging humans and other various animals, gene regulation in neurons, electrical and chemical signalling in neurons and the neurological origin of the existing disease. These fields can be analysed deeply with the help of machine learning and can be merged to study the science behind phobias to a greater extent. However, the irony remains that the human brain will always keep trying to discover itself!