44-Year-Old Woman Can’t Feel Fear, Has Rare Genetic Condition

Even though fear seems to be something experienced by most people for one reason or another, one woman is apparently not affected by it at all.

Due to a rare genetic condition, a 44-year-old woman referred to by doctors as “SM” is unfazed even by extreme situations where fear would be a common factor.

Daily Mail reports that the woman has been subjected to numerous life-threatening situations and was not even able to panic.

For instance, “SM” has been held at gunpoint (and even with a knife) and never felt the need to call for police. Her abusive first husband nearly beat her to death, but she was never afraid of him.

Even when confronting snakes that she knew were poisonous, the woman reportedly had to be refrained before curiosity compelled her to touch them.

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"SM" does not even fear poisonous snakes

According to the report, the only time that “SM” remembers being afraid of anything was when her father caught a scary catfish when she was a child.

A team of neuroscientists at the University of Iowa have kept her identity secret while studying her for more than a decade. This has been done in order to prevent her from compromising situations that would likely arise if her identity is exposed to the public.

When interviewed by Dr. Daniel Tranel from the University, the 44-year-old mother of three could not even describe fear.

The woman is reportedly suffering from the rare genetic disorder known as Urbach-Wiethe disease. Since the disease was first discovered, there have only been 400 cases identified.

Symptoms vary from person to person. There have been some cases in which brain tissue is hardened to the extent of causing abnormalities – such as epilepsy and the lack of the fear.

In the case of SM, tiny structures deep inside of her brain (amygdalae) have completely calcified and wasted away. Those structures play an instrumental role in creating the natural fear response for humans.

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MRI scans of a neurologically intact person (left) and focal bilateral amygdala damage in patient S.M. (right)

Without it, the brain of “SM” is unable to register fear – regardless of what happens to her. “SM” is not even able to determine when someone else is fearful by looking at their facial expressions.

During one experiment in 2013, scientists were able to induce fear by making her inhale carbon dioxide. Studies proved that her reaction was due to the fact that the amygdala is still able to detect carbon dioxide (regardless of the concentration amount) and will trigger panic.

In an interview with NPR journalists, Professor Damasio opened up about his thoughts on fear.

“If you have no fear, more terrible things will happen to you, but you don’t personally experience them as terrible. If you have a lot of fear, fewer bad things are likely to happen, but it’s very probable that your life is more painful to you. So is it better to be fearful or fearless?”

Studies confirm that the disease is not life-threatening. However, a cure for this rare genetic condition in which fear may no longer be a factor has not yet been discovered.

[Image Credit: The Guardian]