UPPSALA, Sweden, Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Researchers have found a way to improve exposure therapy, the main treatment for lifelong fears. By preceding exposure therapy with memory activation, researchers were able to help arachnophobia patients conquer their fear of spiders.
The new augmentation is based on the theory of memory activation and disruption. Scientists have previously hypothesized that long-term memories are more easily disrupted when they are reactivated.
When a memory is recalled, it's re-saved. During this process, researchers theorized, it is more vulnerable to disruption and erasure.
Exposure therapy often struggles to achieve long-term results. Psychologists suggest long-term memories are too strong to overcome.
Researchers at Uppsala University decided to put the ideas of memory destabilization to the test by pairing memory activation with exposure therapy.
The results of their experiments were published this week in the journal Current Biology.
Researchers had volunteer arachnophobia patients look at a series of spider pictures, a 10-minute "mini-exposure," before undergoing a more extensive exposure experience.
During the two phases, researchers measured brain activity in the amygdala. The following day, when study participants were exposed to the pictures once again, amygdala activity was significantly reduced.
Patients were also less likely to avoid spiders after the memory activation and exposure therapies.
"It is striking that such a simple manipulation so clearly affects brain activity and behavior. A simple modification of existing treatments could possibly improve effects," Johannes Björkstrand, PhD student in the psychology department at Uppsala, said in a news release. "This would mean more people getting rid of their anxieties after treatment and fewer relapses."