- Millions of people in the US alone suffer with specific phobias, or severe irrational fears of a given thing, place, or circumstance.
- While there is effective treatment out there, of which often centers around cognitive behavioral therapy, not all phobia suffers find relief.
- Researchers from Wurzburg University Hospital and the Department of Clinical Psychology joined forces to explore additional treatment methods: specifically, magnetic stimulation.
- The team focused on a fear of heights, or acrophobia, and found that participants benefited from completing virtual reality sessions, which exposed them indirectly to their fear.
- Moving forward, the team plans to find out whether virtual reality could help with other specific phobias as well—their current findings are promising.
It’s estimated that 19 million Americans, or 9.1% of the US population, have a specific phobia. These individuals have crippling fears of heights, large crowds, small places, bugs, germs. Fortunately, though, a few forms of treatment have proven to lessen the effects of these phobias, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Still, not everyone benefits equally from therapy and, therefore, continue to suffer with their phobia and resulting anxiety.
Goal and Investigation
That’s why Professor Martin J. Hermann, a psychologist at the Center of Mental Health at Wurzburg University Hospital, combined efforts with the Department of Clinical Psychology at the University of Wurzburg to explore additional treatment methods that could supplement cognitive behavioral therapy—specifically by using a transcranial magnetic stimulation. Hermann understood the promise of magnetic stimulation in the brain, as previous studies show that this can advance effectiveness of unlearning anxiety responses. So, he led the team in exploring whether this could translate into treating the fear of heights.
Their study “Medial prefrontal cortex stimulation accelerates therapy response of exposure therapy in acrophobia” involved analyzing approximately 40 participants with a significant fear of heights. These individuals were exposed to great heights in two different virtual reality sessions: they climbed to the top of a tower and made their way to the rooftop of a tall building with their VR headset in place. According to Herrmann, it didn’t make a difference whether the environment was real or not. “The people feel actual fear in a virtual reality—although they know that they are not really in a dangerous situation,” he told NeuroscienceNews.
The scientists stimulated one group of participants’ frontal lobes for 20 minutes before subjecting them to the virtual reality world, while they only administered a pseudo stimulation on the remaining subjects. This led to the discovery that all participants benefited significantly from the virtual reality stimulations. Furthermore, the team found that stimulating the frontal lobe accelerated the therapy response. In summary, transcranial magnetic stimulation proved to effectively treat patients with a severe fear of heights.
What about other phobia sufferers? Would it help these individuals as well? While we don’t yet know that answer, Herrmann and the rest of the research team plan to find it. They hope to conduct another virtual reality study in the near future, but this time for those who suffer with arachnophobia: or the extreme fear of spiders.
Würzburg University (2017, September 14). Magnetic Fields to Alleviate Anxiety. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved September 14, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/magnetic-field-anxiety-7485/
Herrmann, M. J., Katzorke, A., et al. (2017, April). Medial prefrontal cortex stimulation accelerates therapy response of exposure therapy in acrophobia. Brain Stimulation. Retrieved from https://www.brainstimjrnl.com/article/S1935-861X(16)30308-4/fulltext