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How do you cure arachnophobia? iStock

If the idea of being face to face with a spider terrifies you, you may be happy to learn that scientists have tested a new method to help people who suffer from arachnophobia – a life-long fear of arachnids.

A common therapy to treat phobias, and more generally, anxiety disorders, is known as "exposure therapy". It consists in patients being exposed to images or situations that relate to their fears, in order to overcome them. The problem is that the learning that takes place during such treatment is not permanent. Often, the fear-memory may return at some point later on, even if exposure was successful at first.

In a recent research, published in the journal Current Biology, scientists from Uppsala University in Sweden have investigated a new way to make exposure therapy more effective and to avoid the memories from returning on the long run.

They say that a very brief preliminary exposure to something that triggers the fear-memory – such as a spider picture in the case of arachnophobia – could make following sessions of exposure therapy more successful.

Mini exposures are beneficial

The experiment the scientists carried out in laboratory is quite simple. They first recruited people with arachnophobia – making sure they had a severe and life-long fear of spiders by having them fill a questionnaire. They then exposed them during a very short amount of time to pictures of spiders, followed by a break of 10 minutes. This first part of the experiment was intended to activate the memory of their fear, and to make it more malleable, more unstable.

"Our assumption, based on previous research, is that when people have a recollection, even during a short moment, this initiates a process that makes the memory more malleable. It thus becomes easier to dampen the fear response associated with this memory", lead author Johannes Björkstrand told IBTimes UK.

The researchers then exposed the participants for a lot longer to the pictures, and measured their brain activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that is strongly linked to fear.

They didn't ask the participants directly about how afraid they were, but looking at brain activity through MRI scans, they identified a significant decrease in amygdala activity during this part of the experiment. This decrease was maintained a day later.

The idea is that memory is made unstable during the mini-exposures and is saved in a weakened form, so the fear does not return as easily. In following sessions, being exposed longer to the images further reduced people's fear response.

"It is not entirely clear why people become less scared over time, but it might be that they progressively get used to the pictures as they spend a long time being exposed to them – habit reduces their fear response. The theoretical implications of our work is that the outcomes of exposure therapy could be improved by starting treatment with mini exposure. We may be able to help people who fear spiders, but also those with anxiety disorders, PTSD or even obsessive compulsive disorder", Björkstrand explains.

More research is needed before this strategy can be used as treatment, but for people with phobias, it is already a promising step.