Jul 02 2013

The New York Times: Joseph Ledoux, "For the Anxious, Avoidance Can Have an Upside"

Anxiety. The unmentionable cousin of stress. Anxiety has a bad rap because unlike fear, its sources are vague or intangible. Potential dangers cause anxiety. Real, immediate threats cause fear.

(see here for more on the nature of anxiety) 

So if anxiety is mostly a mental shadow play, what can be done to rewrite the script? Because anxiety takes up real energy and has real consequences for physical health and social interaction.

Joseph Ledoux, NYU professor and director of the Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety, scares rats for a living. In this NYT opinion article, he writes about his most recent work as an insight into what seems to be a useful practice for those suffering from anxiety.

His working premise is that all animals have a fear response: it is our evolutionary heritage. What scares a rat may not be the same thing that scares a human but we can learn about fear response and coping by studying it in animals. Thanks a lot BF Skinner.


The Ledoux lab has for some time been able to condition rats to associate a tone with an electric shock. The rat, even in different conditions and environments, will freeze when he hears the tone. The response may weaken over time but it returns when the animal is stressed. All of this doesn’t seem like very good news for people who have a learned fear response. But wait. Recently, Ledoux and colleagues have been conditioning rats in the same way but then teaching them how to make the tone stop. As soon as the animal moves, the tone is turned off. The animal learns to avoid the tone through action. And here it the kicker, the animal stops freezing when he hears the tone — even when he placed back in the original fear creating environment because he has learned [their words] an active coping mechanism.


The analogy here is that we can choose deliberate small stress avoiding behaviors to soothe ourselves when we get an anxiety trigger. And, even better, there might be a means by which we can make our stress triggers fade away.


The Ledoux lab is looking at a lot rat amygdalas. The amygdala is a small almond shaped part of the mammalian brain that deals with fear: it processes inputs from the outside world and manages how the body will respond. An active coping response, like the strategies mentioned above, requires that the information processed in the input region be redirected to a different output controller in the amygdala, one that engages goal-directed actions rather than the initial freezing response.  What the Ledoux et al have discovered is that is possible to create new pathways —most likely via the neo-cortex— that allow the amygdala to change the way it responds to incoming signals.

Joo Hee Yoon, NYT

credit Joo Hee Yoon, NYT