For most people, arachnophobia does not interfere with everyday life. In most natural habitats, however, people are usually not farther than a few feet from a spider. This means that for some people with arachnophobia, intrusive thoughts of spiders can become a chronic source of distraction and fear.
Lead researchers Marieke Soeter and Merel Kindt, of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, wanted to explore whether memory reconsolidation, a treatment originally developed by neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux for the treatment of posttraumatic stress, could treat arachnophobia. The concept behind reconsolidation is to change the way the brain processes memories that may be upsetting, thereby altering trauma-related thoughts and behaviors.
Soeter and Kindt recruited 45 subjects with arachnophobia. Each group was exposed to a tarantula for two minutes, resulting in a predicted fearful response. After being exposed to the spider, half of participants received a 40-milligram dose of propanolol. The other half received a placebo. Propanolol is a beta-blocker but has also been shown to have amnesic properties.amygdala. After these memories are retrieved, this protein synthesis makes the memories more susceptible to change, but only for a few hours. Thus treatment that occurs immediately after triggering the fear—as was the case with the people exposed to the tarantula—could help extinguish it.
As predicted, participants who received the beta-blocker experienced significant reduction in fear-related avoidance behavior. They were also more willing to approach spiders, even a year after the study.
Scientists have multiple approaches to treating fear. Some providers use cognitive behavioral therapy and medication, but this can require numerous sessions. Others offer a form of treatment called exposure therapy, which gradually exposes someone to a frightening stimulus. Though usually effective, these treatment options can be time-consuming and stressful.
The new study could offer a more cost-effective option for people seeking relief from phobias. More research is necessary to assess whether this treatment works with other phobias.
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