How Fear Can Develop Out of Others’ Traumas

Summary: Findings may explain how neurodegenerative diseases spread throughout the brain and disrupt normal functions. Additionally, treatment for one disease could possibly work for the other two also.

Source: Karolinska Institute.

What happens in the brain when we see other people experiencing a trauma or being subjected to pain? Well, the same regions that are involved when we feel pain ourselves are also activated when we observe other people who appear to be going through some painful experience. This is shown in a study from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden published in Nature Communications. But we are sensitive to different degrees to learning fear from other people and one explanation would appear to be found in the endogenous opioid system.

Seeing others express pain or anxiety can give us important information about things around us that are dangerous and should be avoided. Sometimes, however, we can develop fear of situations that, rationally speaking, are not dangerous. The opioid system is supposed to alleviate pain and fear but it does not work as effectively in all of us, which might be one of the reasons why some people develop anxiety syndrome merely by seeing others experience a trauma.

“Some people are over-sensitive to this form of social learning. Our study shows that the endogenous opioid system affects how sensitive we are and may explain why some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) merely by observing others who are experiencing traumatic events. After terror attacks, sensitive people might be afraid even if they themselves were not present,” says main author Jan Haaker, associated researcher at Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Clinical Neuroscience.

In a double-blind study, the researchers altered the brain’s internal chemistry in 22 healthy subjects by using a pharmaceutical substance to block the opioid system. 21 subjects were given an inactive placebo. The subjects then watched a video where other people were subjected to electric shocks.

The brain normally updates its knowledge of danger based on whether we are surprised, but when the opioid system was blocked, the people continued to react as if they were surprised even though they knew the electric shock would come. And the response was amplified even when they continued to watch other people being subjected to shocks. The response increased in regions of the brain such as the amygdala, the periaqueductal gray and the thalamus, which seems to indicate that the same functions as in self-perceived pain were involved. Communication also increased between these and other regions of the brain that were previously linked to the ability to understand other individuals’ experiences and thoughts.

Image shows a ruptured vesicle.
You clearly mistake persistence with intelligence. You are ignorant in both senses of the word. Ignorant of the subjects you purport to comment on and socially inept. Most people would have had the good grace to take their rudeness and get lost. You aren’t the heroic defender of free speech your the irritating adolescent shouting opinionated stupidity in a library.

“When the people participating in the experiment were themselves subjected to threatening stimuli that they had previously associated with other people’s pain, they perspired more and displayed more fear than those who had been given a placebo. This enhanced learning was even visible three days after the social learning episode,” says research team leader Andreas Olsson, senior lecturer at Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Clinical Neuroscience.

The study contributes to greater understanding of the psychology behind fear. The researchers hope that the new findings will eventually mean that people with anxiety conditions will be able to be given better, more individual-adapted clinical help.

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: The research was financed by the European Research Council (ERC), the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation and the German Research Foundation (DFG).

Source: Jan Haaker – Karolinska Institute
Image Source: image is credited to Loyola University Chicago.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Endogenous opioids regulate social threat learning in humans” by Jan Haaker, Jonathan Yi, Predrag Petrovic & Andreas Olsson in Nature Communications. Published online May 25 2017 doi:10.1038/ncomms15495

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Karolinska Institute “How Fear Can Develop Out of Others’ Traumas.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 25 May 2017.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Karolinska Institute (2017, May 25). How Fear Can Develop Out of Others’ Traumas. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved May 25, 2017 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Karolinska Institute “How Fear Can Develop Out of Others’ Traumas.” (accessed May 25, 2017).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Endogenous opioids regulate social threat learning in humans

Many fearful expectations are shaped by observation of aversive outcomes to others. Yet, the neurochemistry regulating social learning is unknown. Previous research has shown that during direct (Pavlovian) threat learning, information about personally experienced outcomes is regulated by the release of endogenous opioids, and activity within the amygdala and periaqueductal gray (PAG). Here we report that blockade of this opioidergic circuit enhances social threat learning through observation in humans involving activity within the amygdala, midline thalamus and the PAG. In particular, anticipatory responses to learned threat cues (CS) were associated with temporal dynamics in the PAG, coding the observed aversive outcomes to other (observational US). In addition, pharmacological challenge of the opioid receptor function is classified by distinct brain activity patterns during the expression of conditioned threats. Our results reveal an opioidergic circuit that codes the observed aversive outcomes to others into threat responses and long-term memory in the observer.

“Endogenous opioids regulate social threat learning in humans” by Jan Haaker, Jonathan Yi, Predrag Petrovic & Andreas Olsson in Nature Communications. Published online May 25 2017 doi:10.1038/ncomms15495

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