The ability to instantly consider contradictory information from the environment and decide how to act is essential for survival. It’s also a key feature of mental health. Yet despite its importance, very little is known about the connections in the brain that give us the ability to make these split second decisions.
Now, in a paper published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT reveal the circuit in the brain that is critical for governing how we respond to conflicting environmental cues.
Two regions of the brain — the basolateral nucleus of the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex — have for some time been implicated in reward-seeking and fear-related responses, according to Kay Tye, an assistant professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT and a member of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. Tye is the senior author of the research, alongside post docs Anthony Burgos-Robles and Eyal Kimchi, who co-led the study.
“The amygdala is thought to be important for emotive processes, and the prefrontal cortex is thought to be important for higher cognitive processes,” Tye says. “So if I am walking down the street and a dog barks at me, my amygdala might respond immediately as I feel fear, but then I would see that the dog is chained up, and my prefrontal cortex could help to silence my amygdala.”