If the thought of a spider in the same room makes your skin crawl, and you go out of your way to avoid confrontation with the eight-legged beasts, you are likely to be part of the 30% of Americans who have arachnophobia. But according to a new study, this fear of spiders could be eradicated in just 2 minutes with a single dose of a commonly used beta-blocker – and exposure to the creepy critters themselves.
Researchers found that propranolol – a beta-blocker used to treat high blood pressure, chest pain and other heart conditions, and which has previously been found to have amnesic effects – significantly reduced fearful behavior in participants with arachnophobia, after brief exposure to a tarantula.
Drs. Marieke Soeter and Merel Kindt, of the Department of Clinical Psychology at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, say their findings – published in the journal Biological Psychiatry – suggest a novel treatment strategy for individuals with arachnophobia and other anxiety disorders.
The new treatment approach builds on a theory known as memory “reconsolidation,” discovered by neuroscientist Dr. Joseph LeDoux and his team around 15 years ago.
Reconsolidation is the idea that memories can be modified upon activation in order to alter their psychological impact – a strategy that has been hailed for its potential to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by modifying fear-inducing memories.
According to Drs. Soeter and Kindt, the modification of fearful memories has only been credibly demonstrated in animal studies and among healthy individuals. Now, the team has shown the feasibility of memory reconsolidation among people with a real-life fear of spiders.
To reach their findings, the researchers enrolled 45 subjects with arachnophobia who were exposed to a tarantula for 2 minutes – which induced their real-world fear of spiders.
After exposure to the spider, participants were randomized to receive either a single 40-mg dose of propranolol or a placebo.
Compared with subjects who received the placebo, those who received propranolol demonstrated a significant reduction in avoidance behavior and an increase in approach behavior toward spiders. This effect remained for 1 year after the study.
Based on these findings, the team suggests memory activation combined with propranolol could offer a more effective treatment strategy for phobias.
“Here we show for the first time that an amnesic drug given in conjunction with memory reactivation transformed avoidance behavior to approach behavior in people with a real-life spider fear. The new treatment is more like surgery than therapy,” says Dr. Kindt, adding:
“Currently patients with anxiety disorders and PTSD receive multiple sessions of cognitive behavioral treatment or daily drug intake with a gradual (and often temporary) decline of symptoms.
The proposed revolutionary intervention involves one single, brief intervention that leads to a sudden, substantial and lasting loss of fear.”
While the researchers admit further studies are needed in order to test their strategy in a larger cohort and among those with more severe phobias, they believe their current findings show promise for “a new wave of treatments that pharmacologically target the synaptic plasticity underlying learning and memory.”
Though spiders may provoke fear for many of us, a study reported by Medical News Today earlier this year suggests they could offer some use to human health. Researchers from Australia identified compounds in tarantula venom that could help treat chronic pain.