An Old Drug Offers a New Way to Erase Emotional Fears

The National Alliance of Mental Health estimates that up to 15 to 20 percent of people have experienced a phobia at some point in their lives – heights, spiders, elevators, bridges – the list is endless and the fears may not even seem logical. Up until now, exposure therapy has been the treatment most widely used by Psychologists and Psychiatrists.

But now there’s new research that goes far beyond just coping with fears. Professor of Psychology, Merek Kindt and her colleagues at the University of Amsterdam have tested the beta blocker drug Propranolol as a way to actually erase emotional fears in healthy people. The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry in December of 2015, exposed arachnophobes to the thing they most feared – a tarantula – for two minutes in order to stimulate their emotional reaction. At that point they were given Propranolol, which blocks the effects of the brain chemical norepinephrine. By blocking this chemical, the return of the fear memory to storage is disrupted, which is similar to erasing information from a file before you return it to its folder.

When the arachnophobes were exposed to the tarantula a few days later, they were able to touch the spider; after three months most were able to hold the spider in their hands. After a year their fear was still gone. Patients remembered that they once had a fear of spiders, but they no longer had the emotional reaction to them. All of their reactions from their initial fear response to their response a year later were monitored.

Patients given a placebo did not improve, and patients who were given Propranolol before exposure to the spider also did not improve. It was determined that triggering the emotional fear response allows the drug to have a positive influence. The study’s conclusion was that pharmacological treatment of emotional fears, in direct contrast to previous exposure therapy treatments, is on the horizon.