The classic line from the Muad’Dib from Frank Herbert’s Dune series “Fear is the mind killer” may soon be a thing of the past. Scientists have discovered the exact location of a circuit in the mind that actually counters fear and its effects. Previously this particular region was thought to be responsible for triggering fear in humans. In reality it stops this activity from generating. And scientists from the Stanford University School of Medicine may have taken the next step toward eliminating fear in humans. Few worlds are quite so difficult to imagine as an Earth completely bereft of fear.
The paper, published in Nature suggests that by using a trailblazing technology known as optogenetics, and stimulating this region of the brain, scientists were able to enhance risk taking behavior in mice. Similarly eliminating activity in the region caused the mice to make far less risky decisions. The result? Karl Deisseroth, PhD and colleagues have learned the exact circuit that allows us to overcome the fear reflex.
Optogenetics first appeared in the scientific field in 2002 when Oxford scientist and Austrian Native Gero Miesenbock discovered that light could be used to control the neural pathways and neurological behaviors of animals through the process. In 2006 the technology was named in 2006 and it has begun seeing widespread use in research since then. In 2010 Nature named the process the “Method of the Year”
Previously the discovery of different parts of the brain had to be conducted with the “loss” or “gain” of different neurological functions. But with the use of optogenetics these same discoveries can be made with accuracy right down to the millisecond. It is only one of the latest technologies that many hope will change the world of neuroscience and help us gain a better understanding of ourselves.
But what can we expect from this discovery? Is it possible once scientists discover where fear is processed that they could actually eliminate the brain’s ability to produce fear-like responses to external stimuli? How vastly would our society change if all its inhabitants operated completely without fear?
The discovery is already being discussed by cautious readers as something ripe for exploitation by the military. Soldiers who do not feel fear may be more effective on the battlefield, but will this response which is so integral to the existence of human life soon be going the way of the dodo? And how will this lack of fear response make reintegration into society more difficult? In a world where the brain can be altered to no longer feel the effects of fear only time will be able to tell truly. Perhaps it is the poetry of the human race to hear in one generation, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and then in another begin feeling the pangs of apprehension when someone tells us we may one day face a world entirely without fear.