Monday, July 22, 2024

Study finds why humans look away from things they fear

Do you cover your eyes during horror movies? Or perhaps the sight of a spider makes you turn and run? Averting our eyes from things that scare us may be due to a specific cluster of neurons in a visual region of the brain, according to new research.

Researchers at the University of Tokyo found that in fruit fly brains, these neurons release a chemical called tachykinin which appears to control the fly’s movement to avoid facing a potential threat.

“We discovered a neuronal mechanism by which fear regulates visual aversion in the brains of drosophila (fruit flies). It appears that a single cluster of 20-30 neurons regulates vision when in a state of fear,” said Masato Tsuji, Assistant Professor from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University.

“Since fear affects vision across animal species, including humans, the mechanism we found may be active in humans as well,”Tsuji added.

The team used puffs of air to simulate a physical threat and found that the flies’ walking speed increased after being puffed at.

The flies also would choose a puff-free route if offered, showing that they perceived the puffs as a threat (or at least preferred to avoid them).

Next the researchers placed a small black object, roughly the size of a spider, 60 degrees to the right or left of the fly.

On its own the object didn’t cause a change in behaviour, but when placed following puffs of air, the flies avoided looking at the object and moved so that it was positioned behind them.

To understand the molecular mechanism underlying this aversion behaviour, the team then used mutated flies in which they altered the activity of certain neurons.

While the mutated flies kept their visual and motor functions, and would still avoid the air puffs, they did not respond in the same fearful manner to visually avoid the object.

“This suggested that the cluster of neurons which releases the chemical tachykinin was necessary for activating visual aversion,” said Tsuji.

“When monitoring the flies’ neuronal activity, we were surprised to find that it occurred through an oscillatory pattern, that is, the activity went up and down similar to a wave.

“Neurons typically function by just increasing their activity levels, and reports of oscillating activity are particularly rare in fruit flies because up until recently the technology to detect this at such a small and fast scale didn’t exist.”

By giving the flies genetically encoded calcium indicators, the researchers could make the flies’ neurons shine brightly when activated.

With latest imaging techniques, they saw the changing, wavelike pattern of light being emitted, which was previously averaged out and missed.

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