Photo credit: Jamie Zeschke (flickr)
Science

Phobias can be conquered with the right training

By Kat Pooprasert

Tired of having phobias? A new way of curing phobias is underway and is aimed at nudging people into unconsciously thinking about their fears. This will help them to unlearn their associations of fear in a stress-free way.

Conventionally, phobias are treated with ‘exposure therapy’, which involves showing someone the thing they are frightened of in a safe environment. This will teach them that they don’t need to be scared. Obviously, many people find this process too stressful and drop out, or is too apprehensive to sign up in the first place.

Hakwan Lau from University of California, Los Angeles is one of the leaders of the team that is currently studying a new way to treat phobias. She describes how “we thought if we can do it unconsciously, there’s no unpleasantness”.

Lau’s team uses software that can be trained to identify what people are looking at or imagining as they lie in fMRI brain scanners. This software can identify things that someone is thinking about unconsciously.

With this software, the team has found a way to make people think about scary things without realising. In the study, the group recorded the patterns of brain activity that volunteers had when shown 40 images, some of which included common subjects of phobias such as spiders, snakes and dogs. They then set the team a task to do while an fRMI brain scanner.

When unconscious patterns of activity in a person’s visual cortex matched that of a scary picture, that person was given positive feedback and a small cash reward. Thus, this ‘neurofeedback’ training encouraged subjects to think about the scary thing even more, but unconsciously.

To see if this unconscious exposure technique can reduce phobia-related stress, the team tried it on people whom they had conditioned to be scared of a pattern of colored lines by giving them small electric shocks whenever they saw that pattern.

Then the team asked 30 people to choose two pictures (from the set of 40) that they found most scary. After the neurofeedback training, however, the participants perspired less and even had reduced brain activity in the amygdala region (fear center). Such change did not occur on subjects who were not given neurofeedback training.

To follow up, the team plans to go back to the study participants in three months to ask if they still feel scared of their phobia animals. Only then will the success of the technique be known. Joe leDoux of New York University described that “self-reporting of fear is the gold standard for whether a person has been successfully treated or not”.

If this works, the training method could potentially be used for other forms of fear-based conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and various anxiety disorders.

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