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Lasting treatment for fear of spiders (and other things)


Good news for arachnophobes: a single brief therapy session may bring lasting changes to the brain’s response to fear. In fact, the therapy is so successful, adults with lifelong fears of spiders were able to touch or hold a tarantula in their bare hands.

This is the result of a first time study to show immediate and long-term brain changes after treatment which helps the brain reorganize to reduce fear. The lasting effectiveness of the short exposure therapy offers new directions for treating other phobias as well.

“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,” said Katherina Hauner, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the new research. “But after a two or three-hour treatment, they were able to walk right up and touch or hold a tarantula. And they could still touch it after six months. They were thrilled by what they accomplished.”

Exposure therapy

The therapy required gradually approaching the spider. Prior to this, volunteers were too afraid to even look at a photo of a spider. The fear triggered a region of the brain, the amygdala, insula, and cingulate cortex, to fire up with activity.

Volunteers were taught about tarantulas and learned that their fears were unfounded. They learned to approach the tarantulas with small steps. They slowly learned to touch the giant spider. Eventually, their brains showed decreased activity upon exposure to the spider. The effect lasted for over six months.

Source: MedicalNewsToday, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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