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Scientists Investigate Possible 'Fear Drug'

• Marlene Cimons via LiveScience
Kerry Ressler wants to understand the molecular biology of fear. 

"We're studying how the biology of the brain is changed by the environment, and how these changes underlie memories and experiences," said Ressler, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine and Yerkes National Primate Center. "I think it's the key to understanding lots of big picture questions about the brain and the mind."

Ressler, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, has been researching a brain chemical involved both in "learning" to be afraid, as well as in curbing already existing fear.

In recently published research, Ressler and his colleagues showed that mice lacking this chemical — brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF — had difficulty "remembering" to fear a trauma inflicted upon them, in this case, mild footshocks.     

If it works the same way in humans, and Ressler thinks that it does, the finding ultimately could help prevent the emotional and often disabling after-effects of trauma, such as the anxiety, flashbacks and other symptoms suffered by more than five million Americans every year. 

A drug, perhaps, or other therapy given at the time of trauma could prevent the brain from consolidating the memory, thus easing or eliminating the symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

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