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Fear be gone: Tweaking the way phobias are treated may alter bad memories

2914038202_68728db344_zMy friend found a spider the size of a grapefruit on her hand towel while we were visiting Thailand. We had been warned that "wildlife" might visit our rooms, so I'd expected a few spiders or maybe a lizard or two. What I didn't expect was a spider of this magnitude roaming freely in the bathroom.

For some people, this spider scenario would be no big deal. But for others, the thought of a saucer-sized spider nearby would be enough to interfere with their ability to function. Now, researchers from two Swedish universities may have found a way to help people with crippling phobias by helping them overwrite the memories that fuel their fear.

People with phobias are often treated with exposure therapy [link to PDF]— a method that exposes the person to the thing/situation they fear to alter their memories. Yet, as an article in Medical News Today explains, the new memories exposure therapy generates are often fleeting, and for many people the phobia returns.

To make the positive memories stick, the research team modified exposure therapy by briefly exposing people with arachnophobia to photos of spiders, and then showing them the photos again 10 minutes later. The first, brief exposure opens the memory and makes it unstable. While the brain is saving (consolidating) the memory, the images are shown again. This disruption appears to displace the old, fearful memories with new memories — the researchers found significantly reduced activity in the brain region associated with fear when the participants viewed spider pictures again the next day.

"It is striking that such a simple manipulation so clearly affects brain activity and behavior," said co-author Johannes Björkstrand, a graduate student in psychology at Uppsala University. "A simple modification of existing treatments could possibly improve effects."

The researchers hope that their modified version of exposure therapy may help people with any phobia, not just a fear of spiders.

Previously: Irrational fear of contagion fuels xenophobia, Stanford study showsFear factor: Using virtual reality to overcome phobiasStudy finds phobias may speed biological aging and Programmed fear of spiders?
Photo by Thomas Shahan

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