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Posted: Mon Sep 27, 2010 5:27 pm

Brain on Snakes
By Kate Becker on July 26, 2010 9:57 AM

Picture this: You are confined in an MRI machine. Just beyond your head is a
live snake, and every time you press a button, the slithering reptile inches
closer. You cannot run. You cannot move. You must be absolutely still while
the MRI scans your brain to reveal the neurological intricacies of your
total freak-out.

Is this a page from Stanley Milgram's to-do list? A torture scene from some
straight-to-DVD Indiana Jones movie? No. It is a real experiment led by
scientists at the Weizmann Institute in Israel and published last month in
the journal Neuron. The goal: To pinpoint courage in the brain. That's a
tall order for a lab experiment-- most true acts of courage don't happen in
controlled settings--but the investigators hit on a novel solution, as they
explain in this video:

Subjects, split into snake-averse and snake-amenable groups, were strapped
into the MRI. At the opposite end of the machine's claustrophobia-inducing
tube, a "live, rather big" (but not dangerous) snake was Velcroed to the top
of a plastic box set on a moveable trolley. Subjects were was asked to fight
their fear and, using a handheld button that controlled the position of the
trolley, bring the snake just as close to their heads as they could without
running screaming out of the MRI. They could watch the snake's progress
using a mirror set into the MRI apparatus.

Subjects were also wired up with sweat-measuring electrodes, and they
reported their perceived anxiety levels over the course of the experiment.
The researchers discovered that our brains don't always agree with our
bodies: Some subjects said they were terrified, but didn't sweat much at
all. Others had the opposite response. In both cases, an area of the brain
called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex was activated, and subjects
were able to move the creepy critter closer.

Subjects' courage buckled when their brains and bodies aligned--that is,
when they reported feeling anxious and sweated up a storm. So how can you
harness the power of your subgenual anterior cingulate cortex to overcome
fear? We're not quite there yet. But the study gives scientists a target for
treating patients with debilitating anxiety.

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