Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Brain pathways to fear

In Brief

Brain pathways to fear

A brain imaging study of people with the disorder known as Williams syndrome contributes to the understanding of human emotional processes by targeting a distinct circuit that governs anxiety associated with social situations.

Williams syndrome is a genetic disorder with symptoms that include unusual friendliness, empathy, and lack of social anxiety. People with the disorder are socially uninhibited and poor at reading social cues; for example, they often approach strangers and start conversations. But they are more susceptible than average to other kinds of anxiety and phobias.

Most people who have the disorder are mentally retarded, but the investigators recruited 10 with normal intelligence and compared them to controls as they performed two tasks: matching an angry or frightened face with another face showing the same expression, and matching a frightening scene without human beings (for example, a burning building or airplane crash) to an identical scene.

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