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MIT IDs mechanism behind fear

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Researchers from MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have uncovered a molecular mechanism that governs the formation of fears stemming from traumatic events. The work could lead to the first drug to treat the millions of adults who suffer each year from persistent, debilitating fears - including hundreds of soldiers returning from conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The team will report their results in the July 15 advance online publication of Nature Neuroscience.

A study conducted by the Army in 2004 found that one in eight soldiers returning from Iraq reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the National Center for PTSD in the United States, around eight percent of the population will have PTSD symptoms at some point in their lives. Some 5.2 million adults have PTSD during a given year, the center reports.

Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and colleagues show that inhibiting a kinase (kinases are enzymes that change proteins) called Cdk5 facilitates the extinction of fear learned in a particular context. Conversely, the learned fear persisted when the kinase's activity was increased in the hippocampus, the brain's center for storing memories.

Cdk5, paired with the protein p35, helps new brain cells, or neurons, form and migrate to their correct positions during early brain development. In the current work, the MIT researchers looked at how Cdk5 affects the ability to form and eliminate fear-related memories.

"Remarkably, inhibiting Cdk5 facilitated extinction of learned fear in mice. This data points to a promising therapeutic avenue to treat emotional disorders and raises hope for patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or phobia," Tsai said.

Emotional disorders such as post-traumatic stress and panic attacks stem from the inability of the brain to stop experi
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Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
thomson@mit.edu
617-258-5402
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
15-Jul-2007


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