The role of the amygdala in human fear: automatic detection of threat

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2005 Nov;30(10):953-8. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2005.03.019.


Behavioral data suggest that fear stimuli automatically activate fear and capture attention. This effect is likely to be mediated by a subcortical brain network centered on the amygdala. Consistent with this view, brain imaging studies show that masked facial stimuli activate the amygdala as do masked pictures of threatening animals such as snakes and spiders. When the stimulus conditions allow conscious processing, the amygdala response to feared stimuli is enhanced and a cortical network that includes the anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula is activated. However, the initial amygdala response to a fear-relevant but non-feared stimulus (e.g. pictures of spiders for a snake phobic) disappears with conscious processing and the cortical network is not recruited. Instead there is activation of the dorsolateral and orbitofrontal cortices that appears to inhibit the amygdala response. The data suggest that activation of the amygdala is mediated by a subcortical pathway, which passes through the superior colliculi and the pulvinar nucleus of the thalamus before accessing the amygdala, and which operates on low spatial frequency information.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Attention / physiology
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Fear / psychology
  • Humans
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology