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Phobias: Fear-free in two minutes

Repeated exposure to the fear trigger is nowadays the method of choice in behavior therapy in the fight against phobias and other fears. Although this treatment works well, it takes many hours of therapy. Marieke Soeter and Merel Kindt from the University of Amsterdam now investigated whether the pathological fear could not also be dispelled within a shorter period of time by a little "brainwashing" based on a disturbed so-called reconsolidation. The principle: A brief confrontation with the fear trigger, combined with a subsequent "forgetting" that is triggered by a drug.

Neutralize memory

“Reconsolidation means updating the memory. If a certain situation requires an update, the existing memory trace briefly becomes unstable and stabilizes again with the help of certain proteins, ”Kindt explains to NetDoktor. And this is exactly where the researchers come in: "The drug propranolol disrupts the process of memory stabilization and thus neutralizes emotional memory," reports the researcher.

Propranolol comes from the beta blocker class and is normally used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease. It blocks the so-called β-adrenoceptors and thus prevents the binding of adrenaline. “In addition, it prevents the transmission of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline, which plays a decisive role in protein synthesis during reconsolidation,” explains Kindt.

Two minutes with a tarantula

The researchers tested whether their method works on 45 subjects between the ages of 18 and 32 with a pronounced arachnid phobia. The researchers confronted 30 of them with a tarantula for two minutes. Half of them received 40 mg propranolol once and the remaining 15 received a placebo free of active substances. 15 other participants did not have any spider contact, but received 40 mg propranolol once.

The result confirmed the researchers' theory: mere confrontation or just the administration of medication had no effect. However, when the two were combined, the patients lost their fear of spiders. Her avoidance behavior drastically reduced - and this was still the case for a year after treatment.

Method of the future?

"We were able to show for the first time that after a disturbed memory reactivation with the help of a drug, arachnophobes change their avoidance behavior to approach behavior." The researchers believe that in the future not only people who are afraid of spiders could benefit from the new approach, but also Patients with other phobias such as fear of flying.


Soeter M. & Kindt M .: An Abrupt Transformation of Phobic Behavior after a Post-Retrieval Amnesic Agent. Biological Psychiatry (2015). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.04.006

Press release from Elseviers Verlag from December 9th, 2015

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