Science!: Monkeys, Robots and Ovaries

Lauren Admire | 14 Dec 2009 17:00

Forget Your Fears

How many of us struggle with our fears - of flying, of heights, of spiders? Instead of flying, you might make the choice to take a significantly more dangerous cross-country drive; if you're agoraphobic, just walking outside your door can be a monumental task in and of itself. I know I've wished that I could take my debilitating and ironic fear of the ocean and shove it into a deep, never-ending hole somewhere. Having been unable to locate this elusive hole full of unwanted fears, researchers have instead developed a way to rewrite them so that they are no longer terrifying.

Fear is defined as the body's response to objects or events that are believed to represent danger. Common therapy can help alleviate these fears through a process called "extinction," where the fear memory is suppressed as the event is experienced within a safe environment, free of dangerous conditions. Unfortunately, since this does not eradicate the fear memory, a particularly stressful event can bring the fear back in full.

Struggling to find a way to prevent the return of fear memories, researchers from New York University focused on an event called "reconsolidation," when a fear memory is re-processed and then stored into the memory again. During this time, the fear memory can be altered and rewritten.

To test their theory, the researchers created fear memories in participants by associating an object with a small, physical shock. Once the fear memory was successfully created, the researchers showed the object to the participants a day later, because they're sadistic. And also, they wanted to "reactivate" the memory so that they could alter it through the extinction process. When the researchers put participants through a basic extinction process, the fear memory was easily reawakened. However, if they were put through the extinction process during memory reconsolidation, when the fear memory is unstable, the fear did not return.

I wonder if we can associate our fear memories with something other than fear. In that case, I'd like to think of cake and rainbows instead of man-eating sharks whenever I think of the ocean.

Source: Science Daily


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