Sadegh Nabavi granted 2 million DKK by AUFF NOVA to study fear

Sadegh Nabavi will receive the grant over a 3 year period for a project dedicated to map the brain circuit for an innate fear. The innate fear studied is in rodents for predator. Ultimately, the goal is to know what's the difference between a learned fear and innate fear at the circuit and synaptic levels.

2016.11.24 | Emilie Marie Niebuhr Aagaard

The AUFF NOVA grant is only awarded to projects that are pioneering in their field and show clear potential for scientific breakthroughs. Sadegh Nabavis project got a AUFF NOVA grant of 2 million DKK in order to study innate fear over the next three years. 

Description of the project

Fear is perhaps the most powerful factor that defines our decisions and our social interaction. It is essential to our survival, but also a weakness that can be exploited by others. Therefore, understanding the fear circuits has impacts well beyond the scope of neurosciences. Fears are either innate or learned. Examples of innate fear include fear of snakes or height. The fear of a gun pointing at us is learned, as when a man of the 12th century would not have been frightened.

Fear circuit is evolutionary conserved. Therefore, by using invasive techniques in animals we can gain valuable information about the circuit. In rodents a learned fear is induced by associating a neutral stimulus such as a light with an aversive event, such as, an electric shock (Garcia et al., 1999, Nature). Innate fear is induced simply by exposing animals to a fake predator such as a toy snake (Tovote et al., 2016, Nature).

At cellular level, circuit for innate fear is hardwired in our brain. Learned fear, on the other hand, is formed with experiences by synaptic plasticity, the change in the strength of connections between
neurons (Nabavi et al., 2014, Nature). At behavioral level, however, animal’s reaction to both types of fear is virtually the same, expressed by a lack of movement. This indicates that the two systems engage overlapping circuits in the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. This raises a dilemma: how two qualitatively different visual information, one signaling a neutral object, the other a predator, activate the same part of the amygdala, and yet animal responses appropriately? Put it simply, why we show the same fear response to a snake crawling toward us and a gun pointing at us, but only for the gun that we had to learn its danger? This proposal is designed with this question in mind.

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