New paper published in Philosophical transactions of the royal society

Roelofs K. (2017). Freeze for action: neurobiological mechanisms in animal and human freezing. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. pdf.


Upon increasing levels of threat, animals activate qualitatively different defensive modes, including freezing and active fight-or-flight reactions. Whereas freezing is a form of behavioural inhibition accompanied by parasympathetically dominated heart rate deceleration, fight-or-flight reactions are associated with sympathetically driven heart rate acceleration. Despite the potential relevance of freezing for human stress-coping, its phenomenology and neurobiological underpinnings remain largely unexplored in humans. Studies in rodents have shown that freezing depends on amygdala projections to the brainstem (periaqueductal grey). Recent neuroimaging studies in humans have indicated that similar brain regions may be involved in human freezing. In addition, flexibly shifting between freezing and active defensive modes is critical for adequate stress-coping and relies on fronto-amygdala connections. This review paper presents a model detailing these neural mechanisms involved in freezing and the shift to fight-or-flight action. Freezing is not a passive state but rather a parasympathetic brake on the motor system, relevant to perception and action preparation. Study of these defensive responses in humans may advance insights into human stress-related psychopathologies characterized by rigidity in behavioural stress reactions. The paper therefore concludes with a research agenda to stimulate translational animal–human research in this emerging field of human defensive stress responses.