Dissecting the brain's fear system reveals the hypothalamus is critical for responding in subordinate conspecific intruders
Effective defense against natural threats in the environment is essential for the survival of individual animals. Thus, instinctive behavioral responses accompanied by fear have evolved to protect individuals from predators and from opponents of the same species (dominant conspecifics). While it has been suggested that all perceived environmental threats trigger the same set of innately determined defensive responses, we tested the alternate hypothesis that different stimuli may evoke differentiable behaviors supported by distinct neural circuitry. The results of behavioral, neuronal immediate early gene activation, lesion, and neuroanatomical experiments indicate that the hypothalamus is necessary for full expression of defensive behavioral responses in a subordinate conspecific, that lesions of the dorsal premammillary nucleus drastically reduce behavioral measures of fear in these animals, and that essentially separate hypothalamic circuitry supports defensive responses to a predator or a dominant conspecific. It is now clear that differentiable neural circuitry underlies defensive responses to fear conditioning associated with painful stimuli, predators, and dominant conspecifics and that the hypothalamus is an essential component of the circuitry for the latter two stimuli.