The Star Trek emotion chip: carbon dioxide in bilateral amygdala damage

In the 1994 Star Trek film Star Trek Generations, the android Data, an intelligent ship's officer who had been deliberately constructed lacking common human emotions, is provided with an "emotion chip" to supplement his cognition with emotional reactions. To his dismay, the emotion chip causes him to feel so much fear during a firefight that his best friend Geordi is taken hostage as he cowers in a corner.

Can life have imitated art once again?

In this month's Nature Neuroscience, Feinstein et al studied three patients with the rare mixed skin and temporal lobe degeneration affliction referred to as Urbach-Wiethe disease. Persons with this condition lose the tissue in the paired brain structures of the amygdala, and as a result are incapable of feeling the ordinary fear persons have in potentially dangerous social circumstances. Surprisingly, the researches found that they were quite susceptible to extreme fear (to the point of panic attack) when exposed to higher than normal carbon dioxide concentrations, which normally induce only a slight feeling of suffocation. This suggests that the amygdala is important for avoiding environmental and social dangers, but that the amygdala is not needed to feel fear itself, since the patients certainly felt fear when confronted with one of the body's internal danger signals.

How is this like Commander Data's fictional predicament? Could it be that our tolerance of fear is improved by exposure to frequent low intensity stressors such as those associated with mild situational anxiety, and neither Data nor the patients were fear tolerant when they were confronted with fear as a novelty?

So, does tolerance eventually develop to CO2 inhalation in Urbach-Wiethe disease, one wonders?

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