Indiana Jones and the Overactive Amygdala

For Indiana Jones, there was no villain as menacing and no foe as treacherous as the writhing snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Audiences saw their archaeologist champion paralyzed by fear and almost vanquished by his reptilian adversary. Heroic Indy is not alone! Approximately one third of adults report being ophidiophobic, or terrified of even the thought of snakes. The laboratory of Dr. Öhman at the Karolinska Institute examines how evolutionarily engrained fear-relevant stimuli (i.e. pictures of snakes) influence attention and emotion. If Indiana Jones had been a subject, it is likely that in response to pictures of snakes he would have exhibited a strong psychophysiological response, including an accelerated heart rate, increased blood pressure, enhanced skin conductance, and activation of the startle reflex [1]. It is easy to be sympathetic to Indy’s condition, since we know that attacks by venomous snakes can be fatal. It is more challenging to understand why a picture of a snake – and not just the snake itself – can invoke such a powerful physiological reaction.

Fear is defined as an activated aversive emotional state that motivates an organism to cope with threatening stimuli. Defensive mechanisms often include freezing, escape, or attack. It is thought that fear is controlled by evolutionarily-conserved systems in the brain, primarily the amygdala.

Interactions between the amygdala and the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex helps explain increased fear responses in individuals with PTSD [3]
Interactions between the amygdala and the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex helps explain increased fear responses in individuals with PTSD [3]
The inability to extinguish fear responses after an immediate threat has diminished is characteristic of anxiety disorders. Uncontrollable states of fear that no longer provide an evolutionary advantage include post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorders, and phobias. For people who have experienced trauma in response to a particular stimulus (e.g. a snake bite), it is likely that, in response to a quickly moving rustling in the grass, they would react with exaggerated startle, hypervigilance, elevated perspiration, and shortness of breath – a metabolically costly state for the body to exist in long-term. Fortunately for the more than 18% of U.S. adults who suffer from anxiety disorders, the neural circuitry involved in fear responses has been identified [2]. The challenge that remains involves understanding how to shift a pathologically dysregulated fear response to one that is advantageous for avoiding snakes in the way of uncovering that mysterious and long-lost artifact in the Temple of Doom.

Suppressing abnormal fear responses to control PTSD.
Suppressing abnormal fear responses to control PTSD.

1. Öhman A. (2005). The role of the amygdala in human fear: Automatic detection of threat,Psychoneuroendocrinology, 30 (10) 953-958. DOI: 

2. Parsons R.G. & Ressler K.J. (2013). Implications of memory modulation for post-traumatic stress and fear disorders, Nature Neuroscience, 16 (2) 146-153. DOI: 

3. Mahan A.L. & Ressler K.J. (2012). Fear conditioning, synaptic plasticity and the amygdala: implications for posttraumatic stress disorder, Trends in Neurosciences, 35 (1) 24-35. DOI:

Images adapted from and from [3]. 

Jillian L. Shaw

Jillian decided to dedicate herself to a life of exploring the mysteries of the brain after reading neurological case studies by Oliver Sachs and Ramachandran as a student at Vassar College. After completing a B.A. in Neuroscience with honors in 2009, Jillian headed to USC to pursue a Ph.D. in Neuroscience where she is now in her 5th year. A research stint in Belgium exposed Jillian to the complexities of cell signaling pathways, and her interests shifted from cognitive neuroscience to cellular and molecular neuroscience. Her current research focuses on the link between Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease using Drosophila as a genetic model to explore axonal transport, mitochondria dysfunction, synaptic defects, and neurodegeneration. When she is not in the lab, Jillian is forming new synapses by rock climbing throughout Southern California.

Un comentario en «Indiana Jones and the Overactive Amygdala»

  • mayo 24, 2013 en 7:53 am
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    GREAT post — just back-linked it to “Open Loops, Distractions and Attentional Dysregulation” on – another of your posts is linked there as well.

    Good stuff here – following you.
    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CMC, SCAC, MCC
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    (blogs: ADDandSoMuchMore, ADDerWorld & ethosconsultancynz – dot com)
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

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