Erasing Fear: A One-Session Treatment for Phobia?

Philadelphia, PA, December 9, 2015

A new study published in the latest issue of Biological Psychiatry reports the successful and instant reduction of fear in spider-fearful participants following a 2-minute exposure combined with a single dose of a regular pharmacological treatment.

Typical behavioral therapies for phobia take many sessions to produce the desired effect. If recovery could be accelerated, it would reduce distress and save time and money.

Drs. Marieke Soeter and Merel Kindt, Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Amsterdam, sought to build on the notion of “reconsolidation”, identified 15 years ago by Dr. Joseph LeDoux. He and his team discovered that when memories are activated, they may be modified in fundamental ways to strengthen or weaken them.

This neuroscience breakthrough resulted from their findings that administration of a drug upon activation of a fearful memory induced amnesia for that learned fear. However, pharmacologically induced amnesia has only been convincingly demonstrated for fears created in the laboratory in animals and in healthy participants.

In this study, Soeter and Kindt recruited 45 volunteers with spider fear. The participants were randomized to receive a single dose of either propranolol, a beta blocker used to treat high blood pressure and heart conditions, or placebo following brief exposure to a tarantula.

Those who received propranolol displayed drastically reduced avoidance behavior and increased approach behavior, an effect that persisted for one year.

“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. The new treatment is more like surgery than therapy,” said Kindt.

“Currently patients with anxiety disorders and PTSD receive multiple sessions of cognitive behavioral treatment or daily drug intake with a gradual (and often temporary) decline of symptoms,” added Kindt. “The proposed revolutionary intervention involves one single, brief intervention that leads to a sudden, substantial and lasting loss of fear.”

More research is necessary, to extend these findings to patient populations and more severe phobias, in addition to testing the outcome with other variables. However, as Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, commented, “This elegant study may suggest a strategy for accelerating the recovery from anxiety disorders.”

Indeed, these promising findings may ultimately lead to a new treatment strategy that erases the emotional impact of intensely fearful memories, which would signify a true paradigm shift in the practice of psychotherapy.

The article is “An Abrupt Transformation of Phobic Behavior After a Post-Retrieval Amnesic Agent” by Marieke Soeter and Merel Kindt (doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.04.006). The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 78, Issue 12 (December 15, 2015), published by Elsevier.

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Notes for editors
Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Rhiannon Bugno at +1 214 648 0880 or Biol.Psych@utsouthwestern.edu. Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Dr. Merel Kindt at +31 20 525 6810 or m.kindt@uva.nl.

The authors’ affiliations, and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

John H. Krystal, M.D., is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, Chief of Psychiatry at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.

About Biological Psychiatry 
Biological Psychiatry
is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal publishes both basic and clinical contributions from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major psychiatric disorders.

The journal publishes novel results of original research which represent an important new lead or significant impact on the field, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Reviews and commentaries that focus on topics of current research and interest are also encouraged.

Biological Psychiatry is one of the most selective and highly cited journals in the field of psychiatric neuroscience. It is ranked 6th out of 140 Psychiatry titles and 10th out of 252 Neurosciences titles in the Journal Citations Reports® published by Thomson Reuters. The 2014 Impact Factor score for Biological Psychiatry is 10.255.

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Media contact
Rhiannon Bugno
Editorial Office Biological Psychiatry
+1 214 648 0880
Biol.Psych@utsouthwestern.edu