The other day I came across this article on BBC News about a woman who can’t feel fear whom scientists are now studying to discover a cure for PTSD. The woman can’t feel fear because her amygdala is damaged due to disease. It’s been a while since I took Psych 101, but I did remember that the amygdala is also called the Lizard Brain because it regulates some our basic instincts like Fight, Flight or Freeze and sex drives. I did some refresher reading and yes, at its most simplistic, the amygdala helps regulate some of our basic functions having to do with emotion and memory. Obviously you can’t just remove it to help someone deal with PTSD, as they would also lose the benefit of all the positive functions that the amygdala provides.
The woman who can’t feel fear has been in what seems like a lot of dangerous situations – being held at gunpoint and knifepoint. She’s been assaulted more than once. One article mentioned that because she can’t process fear, she may end up in more harrowing situations because that instinct doesn’t tell her to GTFO. We feel fear for a reason. If you ever watch Oprah she loves having people on there who narrowly avoided a dangerous situation because their fear was telling them they needed to act. And it turns out that the knowledge that the amygdala regulates a fear response is old news. Joseph LeDoux, who is pretty much the nation’s amygdala expert (seriously, you should check out his website. He loves the amygdala!) has articles published from 2005 about the amygdala and fear. And here is an abstract in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences from 1997 about the amygdala’s role in processing fear.
One of the core features of PTSD is an increased startle response and hypervigilance. After the traumatic event(s), the person with PTSD is always on guard for any further danger. You can talk to someone with PTSD and see their eyes constantly darting back and forth, always on the lookout. So, you do something to the amygdala to block that hypervigilance. Maybe it could even be returned to “normal” levels of fear, the amount experienced by someone who doesn’t have PTSD. But what about the other aspects of PTSD? There is other stuff going on for a survivor of PTSD besides just having experienced and continuing to experience fear. There are feeling of guilt, sadness, anger, violation, depression that can all impact daily functioning and relationships and won’t be treated by focusing on the amygdala. It’s an interesting step to consider in the research to effectively treat PTSD, but it seems like researchers have a long way to go before they figure out to effectively use their knowledge of the amygdala to treat PTSD>