But when we experience fear in situations that aren't actually dangerous, and when we find ourselves reacting in exaggerated ways, we can become trapped in our fears. Phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder are some of the ways fear can become harmful. While it's possible to undergo psychotherapy to deal with these problems, the process can be slow and uncertain.
A recent breakthrough discovery by Barad and his colleagues in the David Geffen School of Medicine holds the promise of speeding recovery for those who suffer from anxiety disorders. These researchers have identified, for the first time, a distinct molecular process in the brain involved in overcoming fear.
"This is very exciting," Barad says. "Our work is pointing to methods to isolate the process and begin to understand how to make it go faster. We can begin to think about designing drugs that will work in conjunction with behavior modification to accelerate the process."
Barad has extensively studied "fear conditioning," in which one learns to become fearful. He has also investigated fear extinction, the process by which one becomes free of fear. The two processes are not simple opposites.
Extinction, he says, is an active learning process — not one of "erasing" fear." The mechanisms by which it works were, until now, believed to be similar to other forms of learning.
Not so. "What we've discovered is that in fact extinction has its own special mechanisms, different than other forms of learning," Barad says.
The mechanism, Barad and his team determined, involves a particular type of electrical switch in brain cells called L-type voltage-gated calcium channels. Further research will attempt to identify the cells, synapses and molecular pathways specific to extinguishing fear. Ultimately this understanding will change and improve the treatment of human anxiety disorders.
"We want to speed up the process of psychotherapy," Barad says. "As a psychiatrist, I want to help people. So these studies are directly related to helping to make people better."
Barad is the The Tennenbaum Family Center Scholar at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute, a post in which he will continue to conduct interdisciplinary research into brain adaptability and treatments for brain damage and disease.
He will be speaking on his research at "Trauma, Culture & the Brain, An Interdisciplinary Symposium on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder," on the UCLA campus Dec. 13-15.