Have no fear – breakthrough offers hope to phobia sufferers

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Scientists manage to block scary thoughts selectively – without the use of mind-altering drugs

Fear has been eliminated from the human mind for the first time in a series of pioneering experiments that could open the way to treating a range of phobias and anxiety disorders with behavioural therapy rather than drugs.

Scientists have selectively blocked thoughts of fear by interfering with the way memories are "reconsolidated" by the brain. It could lead to new ways of treating the thousands of people whose lives are crippled by fear and anxiety relating to phobias and memories that go back many years.

The research, funded by the US National Institute of Mental Health, may offer an alternative form of treatment to the current use of drugs, which have side-effects. The study suggests that it may be possible to permanently eradicate an overwhelming fear by relatively simple behavioural therapy.

"Previous attempts to disrupt fear memories have relied on pharmacological interventions. Our results suggest such invasive techniques may not be necessary. Using a more natural intervention... allows a safe way to prevent the return of fear," said Elizabeth Phelps of New York University, who led the study published in the journal Nature.

Conventional behavioural therapy involves exposing people to a phobia – such as showing a spider to arachnophobes – under "safe" conditions. The new research goes a step further by deliberately triggering a fear memory and then trying to interfere with the way it is restored or "reconsolidated" by the brain within the critical minutes or hours after the memory was revived.

Dr Phelps said that it was very similar to conventional treatments of phobias but the key difference was that the timing was critical. "By paying attention to the way memories are stored and restored we can perhaps target the therapy by changing the timing of the interventions," she said.

The idea is not to create a new memory saying that the phobia in question is safe, but to retrieve the original memory and manipulate it when it is being restored, or reconsolidated, to show that it is no longer dangerous, the scientists explained.

"Our research suggests that during the lifetime of a memory there are windows of opportunity where it becomes susceptible to be permanently changed. But understanding the dynamics of memory we might, in the long run, open new avenues of treatment for disorders that involve abnormal emotional memories," said Daniela Schiller, the study's lead author and a post-doctoral fellow at New York.

The findings came out of previous work on laboratory rats showing that it was possible to eliminate the fear of a particular sound associated with an electric shock. This could be done by "extinction training", in which the rats were exposed repeatedly to the tone without any electric shocks.

However, the timing of this training was crucial. Fear of the sound was only erased in those rats that were trained after an interval of a few minutes but no longer than a few hours after the fear memory was revived.

The latest study, on human volunteers given electric shocks when shown coloured cards, was based on the rat tests. Only those people whose retraining took place within a certain time window after a fear memory was revived showed signs of fear elimination.

A year after the experiments, 19 of the volunteers took part in further tests. Those who had received training more than six hours after the fear memory was revived still showed signs of fear towards the coloured cards a year later. Those who had been trained within the time window showed no signs of fear – indicating that the fear memory had been eradicated.

"Timing may have a more important role in the control of fear than previously appreciated. Our memory reflects our last retrieval of it rather than an exact account of the original event," Dr Phelps said.

"It means we can target the time window when we know memories are being reconsolidated. In terms of changes to behavioural therapy, it will be subtle changes in the way it's implemented but we hope that it will have dramatic results," she said.

News
peoplePaper attempts to defend itself
Voices
voicesWe desperately need men to be feminists too
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits