Sunday, December 13, 2015


Arachnophobes, rejoice! A new study suggests a cure to your fear of spiders is just two minutes away. The only problem is that it involves being near a tarantula. Reporting in Biological Psychiatry, University of Amsterdam scientists say they built an experiment out of the idea of reconsolidation—that memories can be strengthened or weakened when activated, reports Treehugger. Previous research showed a fearful memory could be forgotten if a drug was administered when that memory was activated, per a release. So researchers exposed 45 arachnophobes to a tarantula for two minutes, then gave each a dose of beta blocker propranolol, used to treat high blood pressure and heart conditions, or a placebo. Those given propranolol saw drastically reduced "avoidance behavior" and increased "approach behavior" over the next year. In other words, they were less likely to dodge spiders and more likely to go near one.
"Here we show for the first time that an amnesic drug given in conjunction with memory reactivation transformed avoidance behavior to approach behavior in people with a real-life spider fear," says study author Merel Kindt. Though more research is needed, the scientist suggests the same technique could be used on patients suffering from anxiety disorders and PTSD. These individuals "receive multiple sessions of cognitive behavioral treatment or daily drug intake with a gradual (and often temporary) decline of symptoms," Kindt says. "The proposed revolutionary intervention involves one single, brief intervention that leads to a sudden, substantial and lasting loss of fear." Not interested in hanging around a tarantula? Atlas Obscura reports the London Zoo is helping people overcome their fear of spiders with group hypnosis. An official says 97% choose to hold a spider after the meeting. (Just not one as big as a puppy.)
Soeter M, Kindt M. An Abrupt Transformation of Phobic Behavior After a
Post-Retrieval Amnesic Agent. Biol Psychiatry. 2015 Dec 15;78(12):880-6.



Although disrupting the process of memory reconsolidation has a great potential for clinical practice, the fear-amnesic effects are typically demonstrated through Pavlovian conditioning. Given that older and stronger memories are generally more resistant to change, we tested whether disrupting reconsolidation would also diminish fear in individuals who had developed a persistent spider fear outside the laboratory.


Spider-fearful participants received a single dose of 40 mg of the noradrenergic β-blocker propranolol (n = 15), double-blind and placebo-controlled (n = 15), after a short 2-min exposure to a tarantula. To test whether memory reactivation was necessary to observe a fear-reducing effect, one additional group of spider-fearful participants (n = 15) received a single dose of 40 mg propranolol without memory reactivation.


Disrupting reconsolidation of fear memory transformed avoidance behavior into approach behavior in a virtual binary fashion—an effect that persisted at least 1 year after treatment. Interestingly the β-adrenergic drug did initially not affect the self-declared fear of spiders but instead these reports followed the instant behavioral transformation several months later.


Our findings are in sharp contrast with the currently pharmacological and cognitive behavioral treatments for anxiety and related disorders. The β-adrenergic blocker was only effective when the drug was administered upon memory reactivation, and a modification in cognitive representations was not necessary to observe a change in fear behavior. A new wave of treatments that pharmacologically target the synaptic plasticity underlying learning and memory seems to be within reach.

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