Pathways of emotion – from cortex to peripheral organs

Walking down a dark alley late at night is enough to give anyone the heebie-jeebies. Your heart starts racing, your palms get clammy and you get ready to run. Now researchers from Boston University have unravelled the neural pathways that transmit information about your surroundings to your organs, enabling them to respond appropriately.

The research, to be published on Friday in BMC Neuroscience, has shown that neurons originating in high-order brain structures transmit signals about the environment relatively directly to low-order structures in the spinal cord. There is just one structure in the middle – the hypothalamus. The pathway then connects to autonomic nerves, which originate in the spinal cord, to regulate organ function.

Helen Barbas, the research team leader, says: “The existence of these pathways has implications for several psychological conditions. For example, these pathways may be excessively active in anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and obsessive-compulsive disorder – conditions in which the emotional experience is extreme relative to the situation. Similarly, these pathways may be abnormally inactive in psychopathic individuals, who lack appropriate emotional responses.”

Other research in humans has implicated the prefrontal cortex in these conditions. When this area is damaged, patients lack emotional propriety and do not show the changes in heart rate and the skin responses that normally accompany emotional arousal.

To map the neural pathways the researchers injected two different tracer molecules into the prefrontal cortex and the spinal cord. These molecules travel along the nerve axons, and the neurons can be seen as coloured structures through the microscope – the axons of the neurons originating in the cortex were red and the neurons that terminated in the spinal cord were blue. Both blue and red structures could be seen close together in the hypothalamus, specifically in those areas that are involved in the control of peripheral organs. This finding suggested that prefrontal cortex neurons could interact with neurons in the hypothalamus that send messages to the spinal cord.

The team then used electron microscopy to look at nerve endings in the hypothalamus. They saw that neurons from one area of the prefrontal cortex terminated in large “boutons” in the hypothalamus. The appearance of these boutons suggested that the prefrontal neurons have an excitatory effect on the neurons in the hypothalamus.

Barbas said, “By combining two independent approaches to label multiple pathways simultaneously, we have demonstrated that the prefrontal cortex has relatively direct access to central autonomic structures. This evidence suggests that high-level prefrontal areas can rapidly influence autonomic areas in complex emotional situations”.

This press release is based on the following article:

Serial pathways from primate prefrontal cortex to autonomic areas may influence emotional expression
Helen Barbas, Subhash Saha, Nancy Rempel-Clower and Troy Ghashghaei

BMC Neuroscience 2003, 4:25
http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2202/4/25
Published 10th October 2003

Media Contact

Gemma Bradley Biomed Central

All news from this category: Life Sciences

Articles and reports from the Life Sciences area deal with applied and basic research into modern biology, chemistry and human medicine.

Valuable information can be found on a range of life sciences fields including bacteriology, biochemistry, bionics, bioinformatics, biophysics, biotechnology, genetics, geobotany, human biology, marine biology, microbiology, molecular biology, cellular biology, zoology, bioinorganic chemistry, microchemistry and environmental chemistry.

Back to the Homepage

Comments (0)

Write comment

Latest posts

A little friction goes a long way toward stronger nanotube fibers

Rice model may lead to better materials for aerospace, automotive, medical applications. Carbon nanotube fibers are not nearly as strong as the nanotubes they contain, but Rice University researchers are…

Light-induced twisting of Weyl nodes switches on giant electron current

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory and collaborators at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the University of Alabama at Birmingham have discovered a new light-induced switch that twists…

Acidification impedes shell development of plankton off the US West Coast

Shelled pteropods, microscopic free-swimming sea snails, are widely regarded as indicators for ocean acidification because research has shown that their fragile shells are vulnerable to increasing ocean acidity. A new…

Partners & Sponsors

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.

Close