While each of us experiences fear sometimes, sufferers of phobias experience persistent anxiety that can affect their daily lives. Treatment can be a long process, often involving months of psychotherapy, which can be expensive. What if there was a cure for phobia that could be administered in a single session? What if that session was only two minutes long?
Current treatment tries to break the association between fear and the object or situation that is causing it. Bit by bit the sufferer faces his or her fear. This exposure is gradually increased over time. It’s simple and it works, but it can take months.
Every time we remember something we make that memory stronger, more easy to recall again. This process is called reconsolidation. Fifteen years ago, neuroscientist Dr. Joseph LeDoux wondered if interrupting this reconsolidation process would result in a weakening of the memory instead. Research has progressed steadily since then. Up to now, it was restricted to animal studies or with non-phobic humans.
A Two Minute Cure?
A new study by Drs. Marieke Soeter and Merel Kindt of the University of Amsterdam has reported a successful reduction of fear in people who have longstanding arachnophobia – a fear of spiders. The relief was reported to be instant.
Not every type of memory is the same. Memory of a threat causes special proteins to be created in the brain. If a drug could disrupt the formation of these proteins then it’s reasonable to assume that the memory will be weakened. So how do you test this?
The researchers randomly split forty-five volunteers into three groups of fifteen. The volunteers of one group were given a drug commonly used to treat high blood pressure and heart conditions. The second group got dummy sugar pills. To test if the threat memory could be weakened, it first had to be re-activated. This was achieved by exposing the poor spider-fearing participants to a real, live tarantula for a whole two minutes! They then took their pills. Members of group three took the drug without having to see the tarantula.
I bet you see where this is going. The group that had their threat memory triggered by one of the biggest spiders on the planet and who took the blood pressure pill showed a “drastically reduced avoidance behavior and increased approach behavior, an effect that persisted for one year.” Or in other words, spiders suddenly were not as scary as they once were. And the effect triggered by one pill lasted for a year!
“Here we show for the first time that an amnesic drug given in conjunction with memory reactivation transformed avoidance behavior to approach behavior in people with a real-life spider fear. The new treatment is more like surgery than therapy,” Dr. Kindt.
As well as phobias. the research also opens up the possibility of treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course, as always, more research needs to be done. But the signs are promising.
“Currently patients with anxiety disorders and PTSD receive multiple sessions of cognitive behavioral treatment or daily drug intake with a gradual (and often temporary) decline of symptoms[…] The proposed revolutionary intervention involves one single, brief intervention that leads to a sudden, substantial and lasting loss of fear.” – Dr. Kindt