Czech scientists discover emotion-sensing neurons

Neurons, photo: Gerard79 / freeimages

A team of Czech scientists from Charles University has announced the discovery of neurons in the brain, which react only to emotions. Their findings have just been published in a prestigious American medical journal, and may help provide a key to understanding the least understood part of our anatomy – namely the human mind.

Robert Jech,  photo: Marián Vojtek
The findings are reported in the latest issue of the US-based medical journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A team of Czech scientists from Prague’s Charles University – Robert Jech, Tereza Serranová and Tomáš Sieger – cooperated with colleagues from Na Homolce Hospital and the Faculty of Electrical Engineering at the Czech Technical University in Prague for six years on the study. Special micro electrodes were placed into the brains of human volunteers – the end result was the discovery that certain neurons in the brain reacted purely to emotional stimuli.

Professor Robert Jech who is attending a conference in Jerusalem, explained to me that the ability to measure the responses of real patients was critical to the study:

“The most important part is that we had the privilege to explore this region while the patient was conscious. So we could ask our patients to co-operate and to perform psychological tests.”

As part of the experiments, these patients were shown images with three types of emotional content: positive, neutral and negative. Patients were then asked to describe both the nature of the emotions they felt and also how strong the emotions were. While undertaking this study, the scientists discovered that the behaviour of a large number of neurons – around 17 percent – were reflecting the scores which had been given by patients. In other words, they were feeling good, bad or indifferent.

Neurons,  photo: Gerard79 / freeimages
Robert Jech explained that scientists have long suspected the existence of a link between the biological world of neural behaviour and the decidedly more subjective world of human emotional responses. But the results of these detailed experiments are the first to make a direct link on the microscopic level.

For the future, Jech says that his team are seeking to continue their tests and want to find a way of selectively stimulating specific neurons in the brain. Such a scientific advancement promises to yield more effective treatments for conditions such as Parkinson ’s disease. Today, such ailments are treated through neural stimulation of entire regions of the brain. The discovery by Czech scientists, Jech says, may yield instruments which are more targeted and thus have fewer negative side-effects.