WASHINGTON – It can take only an instant for fear to take hold in the brain — a fear of snakes after being bitten, or of water after witnessing a drowning — and overcoming that fear can take a long time. But now researchers are saying it can be done in your sleep.
Scientists at Northwestern University say they have successfully lowered levels of fear in humans by using certain odors to trigger and re-associate frightening memories into harmless ones during a deep slumber.
“Sleep sort of stamps memories in more strongly,” said neurologist Jay Gottfried, senior author of the study, which was published online Sunday by the journal Nature Neuroscience. “That’s when a lot of memory formation can take place.”
The researchers first created a fear of a certain face in their subjects by using conditioning — making them link together a certain face and smell in their minds with a painful electric shock. After some trials, the participants became afraid of the face, and the smell acted as a cue associated with that face.
The researchers then used the smell to trigger fear memories during sleep as a way to acclimate patients without the stress of conscious terror.
Gottfried and his colleagues have not attempted this on pre-existing fears, but theoretically it could be done by creating a connection between a phobia and a distinct smell. He said the first kind of patients who could be helped by this process would be those who already have a smell associated with their fear — for example, gunpowder.
“From a clinical perspective, this can be a new approach to try and treat stressful or traumatic memories,” Gottfried said.
He said that fear, a type of emotional memory, is often learned at a young age from experience or even mere observation. A child who was bitten by a dog grows up afraid of dogs, but so does the child who sees his father attacked by one.
“Across all species, one thing is true: The learning of a fear occurs much more quickly than the fear extinction process,” said lead researcher and neurologist Katherina Hauner.
In exposure therapy, repeated exposure to the stimulus forms a new, safe memory.
For example, Hauner said a fear of spiders can be quelled by looking initially at photos of spiders, then a real-life spider housed in a faraway cage, next by petting one with a thick glove, and finally by holding one.
“Extinction learning is typically known to be a new memory that essentially overwrites the fear memory,” said New York University’s Elizabeth Phelps, a psychologist and fear-conditioning researcher who was not involved in the study.
Hauner previously studied how slow and steady contact with spiders can change the brains of arachnophobes. Being a postdoctoral researcher under olfactory expert Gottfried, she thought about using smells to trigger fear memories during sleep as a way to alter the emotional memory.
The researchers showed 15 healthy subjects a photo of a different face every few seconds, but for two faces in particular they received foot shocks. They eventually learned to fear both faces, as measured by increased levels of sweat.
Each face was also associated with its own special smell in the subjects’ minds by pumping in a scent whenever that specific face popped up in the series — for instance, roses for one and lemons for the other.
Then the subjects napped for a couple of hours. Whenever they fell into a deep phase known as slow-wave sleep, they were given the rose smell in order to recall one face, but without the accompanying jolts.
After the subjects awoke, they went through the same pre-nap process of being shown the series of different faces. This time around, they weren’t as afraid of the face with the rose smell anymore — but were still just as fearful of the other, whose associated smell they hadn’t been exposed to during sleep.
Also, those who smelled roses for the longest total time while sleeping were less fearful of the face than those who had smelled roses only for a short time. All the while, the subjects had no idea what went on during sleep.
Sleep plays a key role in memory consolidation, which involves parts of the brain replaying the events of the day and choosing which parts to store for safekeeping and which to forgo.
This experiment “asks a very interesting question, whether there is a unique period during memory consolidation as we sleep in which such memories could be, let’s say, updated,” said Rutgers University psychologist Mauricio Delgado, who was not involved in the study.
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