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the Switch from Freeze to Fight

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Neural Dynamics of Shooting Decisions and the Switch from Freeze to Fight
Real-life shooting decisions typically occur under acute threat and require fast switching between vigilant situational assessment and immediate fight-or-flight actions. Recent studies suggested that freezing facilitates action preparation and decision-making but the neurocognitive mechanisms remain unclear. We applied functional magnetic resonance imaging, posturographic and autonomic measurements while participants performed a shooting task under threat of shock. Two independent studies, in unselected civilians (N = 22) and police recruits (N = 54), revealed that preparation for shooting decisions under threat is associated with postural freezing, bradycardia, midbrain activity (including the periaqueductal gray-PAG) and PAG-amygdala connectivity. Crucially, stronger activity in the midbrain/PAG during this preparatory stage of freezing predicted faster subsequent accurate shooting. Finally, the switch from preparation to active shooting was associated with tachycardia, perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (pgACC) activity and pgACC-amygdala connectivity. These findings suggest that threat-anticipatory midbrain activity centred around the PAG supports decision-making by facilitating action preparation and highlight the role of the pgACC when switching from preparation to action. These results translate animal models of the neural switch from freeze-to-action. In addition, they reveal a core neural circuit for shooting performance under threat and provide empirical evidence for the role of defensive reactions such as freezing in subsequent action decision-making.

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