Phobias could be a thing of the past, as researchers claim they have found a cure for fear. The scientists, from the University of Amsterdam, successfully reduced fear of spiders in volunteers with pharmacological treatment.
The treatment, which works instantly, comprises of a two-minute exposure to the fear, followed by a single dose of a beta-blocker, propranolol. In the study – published in Biological Psychiatry - the treatment was used to actively reduce the fear of spiders in volunteers.
"Currently patients with anxiety disorders and PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – receive multiple sessions of cognitive behavioural treatment or daily drug intake with a gradual – and often temporary – decline of symptoms," said Merel Kindt, one of the authors of the paper. "The proposed revolutionary intervention involves one single, brief intervention that leads to a sudden, substantial and lasting loss of fear."
The study used the idea, originally published 15 years ago by Joseph LeDoux, that using pharmaceuticals in combination with activating a memory of fear leads to amnesia for that phobia – effectively forgetting that you are scared. Before this study, this idea of forgetting the phobia – or reconsolidation therapy – has only been used on animals and specially selected healthy subjects.
"Here we show for the first time that an amnesic drug given in conjunction with memory reactivation transformed avoidance behaviour to approach behaviour in people with a real-life spider fear. The new treatment is more like surgery than therapy," said Kindt.
Over 40 volunteers that had a fear of spiders were selected to test the treatment. Half received a single dose of the beta blocker – usually used in patients with high blood pressure – and half received a placebo.
The results showed that the volunteers that received that beta blocker showed much less avoidance behaviour when they came back into contact with the spider. They also even showed a greater desire to approach the spider. The effect lasted for one year.
The next stage of research is to test the reconsolidation therapy on a bigger population, and more extreme phobias. The treatment could then be used to help those that have experienced traumatic events in their lifetime.