Fear and the amygdala: manipulation of awareness generates differential cerebral responses to phobic and fear-relevant (but nonfeared) stimuli

Rapid response to danger holds an evolutionary advantage. In this positron emission tomography study, phobics were exposed to masked visual stimuli with timings that either allowed awareness or not of either phobic, fear-relevant (e.g., spiders to snake phobics), or neutral images. When the timing did not permit awareness, the amygdala responded to both phobic and fear-relevant stimuli. With time for more elaborate processing, phobic stimuli resulted in an addition of an affective processing network to the amygdala activity, whereas no activity was found in response to fear-relevant stimuli. Also, right prefrontal areas appeared deactivated, comparing aware phobic and fear-relevant conditions. Thus, a shift from top-down control to an affectively driven system optimized for speed was observed in phobic relative to fear-relevant aware processing.
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