According to this study published in the September 2009 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers identified a major connection of nerve fibers between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala as playing an important role in the severity and reduction of anxiety in people.
The strength of the connection called the uncinate fasciculus (UF) was inversely correlated to the severity of anxiety in people. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fmri) and diffusion tensor imaging (dti) the researchers where able to test the strength of the connection with 20 healthy subjects.
In order to understand how the uncinate fasciculus plays a role in anxiety and panic attacks, you have to understand the relationship between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala in the human brain.
The prefrontal cortex is located in the frontal lope region of the brain and is also located directly behind the forehead. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for planning for the future, short term or working memory, organization of thoughts and problem solving.
The amygdala is located in bottom of the temporal lope region of the brain, close to the brain stem. The amygdala has been called the emotional center of the brain, but is also more known for the processing of fear. The popular theory regarding the role of the amygdala and fear is that its location, so close to the more autonomous region of the brain, increased our survival rate as early humans in the wilderness. Meaning that if we became frightened for our lives, the distance between the amygdala and the brain stem was so small that it allowed our more autonomous or primitive brain to spur the body into action before we actually processed what was going on.
You can witness this phenomenon in this youtube video of top ten pranks.
A good prank, will trigger the fear response in a person, at which time that person will resort to his or her natural response to the perceived threat without thinking about it.
So back to the study regarding the nerve connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The researchers, by introducing test subjects to fear arousing stimuli, were able to test the subjects reactions by tracking the signals sent through the unicinate fasciculus (UF) from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex. According to the results of the study, it appears that the stronger and thicker the UF in a subject was, the faster the amygdala communicated with the prefrontal cortex and the less severe the subject’s experience with anxiety was. This also means that a thinner UF, meant a slower and weaker communication between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex and increased experience of anxiety in subjects.
The results of this study would make sense, given that the amygdala is the emotional center of the brain and with it’s location in the primitive brain region it would stand to reason that reduced communication with the prefrontal cortex would increase the likelihood of reactivity, mainly a fight or flight reaction. Further, given that the prefrontal cortex is primarily responsible for rational thought processes, it would also stand to reason that increased connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala would increase a more rational and calmer response to fear.
As a former soldier, I can testify from first hand experience that the military through repeated exposure and repetition in drills teaches soldiers during combat training on how to exercise calm during life threatening situations in order to make rational decisions.
Now it could be that such trainings,could lead to soldiers developing a stronger connection between their amygdala and prefrontal cortex for situations that would trigger panic in the average person. However, could the same measure be applied to people who suffer from panic attacks?
Could there be some sort of training regimen that panic attack sufferers could benefit from, which could lead to their ability to induce calm at the onset of an episode?
In my upcoming ebook, “How to End Your Panic Attacks” I will introduce the reader to six cognitive behavioral strategies designed to help people bring their episodes with panic attacks to an end.
I currently have a publication date for the end of March.