Brain Scan Helps Cure Spider Phobia In Hours

By Amir Khan on May 23, 2012 9:49 AM EDT

Wolf Spider
Afraid of spiders? A brain scan coupled with therapy can cure you in hours, according to a new study. (Photo: WikiMedia Commons)

Arachnaphobia -- the fear of spiders -- is one of the most common fears in the world, but a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday shows that brain scans coupled with exposure therapy can cure the phobia in mere hours.

"Before treatment, some of these participants wouldn't walk on grass for fear of spiders or would stay out of their home or dorm room for days if they thought a spider was present," Katherina Hauner, study author and postdoctoral fellow in neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a statement.

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Researchers performed an MRI on the participants as they got near to a tarantula in a tank and found that certain areas of their brain related to fear lit up as they drew near. Most could not get closer than 10 feet to the spider. However, the researchers taught the participants that many of their fears were unfounded, which helped them immensely.

"They thought the tarantula might be capable of jumping out of the cage and onto them," Hauner said in the statement. "Some thought the tarantula was capable of planning something evil to purposefully hurt them. I would teach them the tarantula is fragile and more interested in trying to hide herself."

The researchers then began exposure therapy, touching the animal with a paintbrush, then a glove, then with their bare hands. The therapy took only two hours and the benefit lasted over six months after the therapy ended. Researchers found that the people with the highest initial fear response had the best response to exposure therapy, meaning an MRI could be used to see whether a person would benefit from the therapy.

The findings may apply to other phobias, Paula Young, director of the Family Institute Depression Treatment Program at Northwestern, who was not involved in the study, told WebMD. Phobias are natural, but getting over them can help improve your quality of life, she said.

"It is natural for people to avoid what they are afraid of," she said. "But if you do that you never get the opportunity to find out that the thing you are afraid of isn't really that scary. And you don't find out that the anxiety you feel will eventually resolve on its own if you don't try to escape."

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