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Fighting phobia formation by blocking scary memories from forming?

Posted Dec 17 2009 10:39pm


This past weekend, I came across this, an article on the Science website about NYU researchers' efforts to extinguish fearful aspects of memories during the "reconsolidation" phase of the memory-recall process. Here's how it worked:

The scientists started by creating a scary memory of a blue square. They flashed blue or yellow squares on a computer screen and gave subjects a slight shock on the wrist when only the blue square appeared. After this training session, just flashing the blue square without a shock put people on edge, which the researchers measured by recording tiny currents that pass through their skin. One day later, the scientists performed extinction training by flashing the blue square repeatedly without any shocks. To trigger reconsolidation, one-third of the subjects got a reminder--a quick flash of the blue square--10 minutes before extinction training. (Reconsolidation normally starts about 3 minutes after a memory gets recalled.) Another third received a reminder 6 hours beforehand--which meant that the extinction training began well past the time when reconsolidation ended--and the final third weren't reminded at all.

When the scientists tested the subjects' response to the blue square a day later, those who received the 10-minute reminder showed no fear, while the other two groups were still freaked out by the shape. Even 1 year later, those subjects who underwent extinction training during reconsolidation still showed no response to the blue squares, while their counterparts retained the fear memory, the scientists report online today in Nature. "Because extinction training happened during [reconsolidation], we think that ... the nature of the memory changed," Phelps says.

Imagine how helpful it would be if you could make it so that a location where you experienced a panic attack does not make you fearful or want to avoid it moving forward. Heck, my career would probably be completely different (and probably more lucrative) if I hadn't had to endure periods of being unable to commute by train or highway. The potential benefits of this research in fighting agoraphobia are exciting.


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