The mouse that roared

A while ago, my wife showed me a teen-girl book called Fearless: A Girl Born Without The Fear Gene. The hero is a teenager who doesn’t feel fear, a fact that transforms her into this totally awesome crime-fighter. I howled with laughter when I saw the title — because, of course, human genetics are so crazily complex that the idea of linking an emotional state to a specific gene is utterly crappy science, right?

Whoops. Turns out that a couple of scientists just discovered that when you knock the gene strathmin out of mice, they’re much less fearful — and much more brave. As the New Scientist reports:

In the experiments, the stathmin-lacking mice wandered out into the centre of an open box, in defiance of the normal mouse instinct to hide along the box’s walls to avoid potential predators.

And to test learned fear, the mice were exposed to a loud sound followed by a brief electric shock from the floor below them. A day later, normal mice froze when the sound was played again. Stathmin-lacking mice barely reacted to the sound at all.

Apparently, Strathmin is located primarily in the amyglada, a brain area crucial to the regulation of fear. If the scientists can figure out more precisely what’s going on, they could potentially design drugs to help people who suffer from persistent anxiety disorders. Or pharmaceutically create a legion of crazed soldiers unafraid to die!! It reminds me of the drug Dylar in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which would relieve patients of any fear of death, with one curious side effect: If you spoke a suggestive descriptive phrase out loud, they would vividly hallucinate it as if it were real.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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