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Loss of fear factor makes timid mouse bold

Researchers have identified a fear factor a protein the brain uses to generate one of the most powerful emotions in humans and animals. The molecule is essential for triggering both the innate fears that animals are born with such as the shadow of an approaching predator as well as fears that arise later in life due to individual experiences. Eliminating the gene that encodes this factor makes a fearful mouse courageous. The finding, the researchers say, suggests new approaches for drugs designed to treat conditions such as phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety.

Working in mice, the scientists, led by Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Eric R. Kandel at Columbia University, found that the protein stathmin is critical for both innate and learned fear. Mice without stathmin boldly explore environments where normal mice would be hesitant, and, unlike their normal counterparts, fail to develop a fear of cues that have been associated with electric shock. The scientists also found physiological changes in the brains of mice lacking stathmin that correlate to the behavioral changes they observed.

The work, published in the November 18, 2005 issue of the journal Cell, was carried out by lead author Gleb Shumyatsky, a postdoctoral fellow from Kandel's lab who is now at Rutgers University, and other scientists from Columbia, Rutgers, Harvard Medical School, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Both humans and animals are born with an innate fear of certain threatening stimuli. As an example, Kandel said, "If you see a train heading right at you, you get scared and run away. This is built into the genome the capability to respond to natural threat." Furthermore, when researchers pair a naturally frightening stimulus, such as an electric shock, with a neutral signal, such as a tone, animals develop fear of the neutral tone. "That is called learned fear that's acquired, it's a form of learning," Kandel ex
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Contact: Jennifer Michalowski
michalow@hhmi.org
301-215-8576
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
18-Nov-2005


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