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Anxiety disorders—from general anxiety disorder to social anxiety disorder to obsessive-compulsive disorder, just to name a few—affect 40 million adults in the United States every single year. These individuals have crippling fears of going to work, of large crowds, of simply shaking someone’s hand. But thankfully, a few treatment methods have proven to lessen the effects of anxiety such as, most significantly: cognitive behavioral therapy, which works by purposely exposing these individuals to their perceived threats. Still, experts have found that not everybody benefits equally from this therapy and, therefore, still suffer greatly from their anxiety with seemingly nowhere to turn.

And that’s exactly why Professor Martin J. Herrmann, a psychologist at the Center of Mental Health at Wurzburg University Hospital, combined efforts with researchers from the Department of Clinical Psychology at the University of Wurzburg to explore ways of improving the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy—specifically by using a transcranial magnetic stimulation. Hermann understood the promise of magnetic stimulation in the brain, as previous studies showed that this can advance the effectiveness of unlearning anxiety responses. So, he led the team in exploring whether this could translate into treating the fear of heights.

Their study involved analyzing approximately 40 participants with a significant fear of heights. These individuals were subjected to great heights in two different sessions; except they didn’t really climb to the top of a tower or make their way to the rooftop of a tall building, similar experiences were instead created through a virtual reality headset. 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 says.
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 benefit considerably from the therapy in virtual reality and the positive effects of the intervention are still clearly visible even after three months,” says Herrmann. Furthermore, the team found that stimulating the frontal lobe accelerated the therapy response.

So, transcranial magnetic stimulation proved to effectively treat patients with a severe fear of heights. But what about other anxiety sufferers? Those who fear public places, germs, small spaces. 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.

About a year or two ago, my brother called me into his room and forced me to try out his new Christmas present: a virtual reality video game. He lifted a bulky piece of equipment over my head and then instructed me to simply open my eyes. Upon opening them, I found myself to be on the bottom of an ocean near a shipwreck, with sharks swimming all around me. Immediately I screamed and yanked the headgear off, much to his pleasure. So, while I certainly didn’t combat my fears (nor did I try to) I can account for how real this technology makes virtual surroundings appear and feel. And I’m pleased to know that it’s not being used primarily for entertainment purposes, but to break medical ground and help the 40 million people who suffer from anxiety today.

Source: Würzburg University “Magnetic Fields to Alleviate Anxiety.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 14 September 2017.

Original Research: Abstract for “Medial prefrontal cortex stimulation accelerates therapy response of exposure therapy in acrophobia” by Martin J. Herrmann, Andrea Katzorke, Yasmin Busch, Daniel Gromer, Thomas Polak, Paul Pauli, and Jürgen Deckert in Brain Stimulation. Published online April 2017 doi:10.1016/j.brs.2016.11.007

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