Electric shock experiments on humans have shown that brain regions linked to fear responses are also highly activated when fears are unlearned, a finding that provides insight into developing drugs for anxiety and other fear disorders.

Researcher Elizabeth Phelps and colleagues at New York University have found that a brain structure called the amygdala becomes most active as fears are unlearned. In addition, a connected area called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex appears to be critical for the extinction of fear.

Their findings mirror those of animal studies, providing one of the first demonstrations that the mechanisms of fear may be similar across species.

“Understanding how fears are acquired is an important step in our ability to translate basic research to the treatment of fear-related disorders,” say the researchers. “Understanding how learned fears are diminished may be even more valuable.”

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