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Scientists say they have found a cure for fear

AP Photo/Mark Thiessen
Afraid of Santa? Science might have a fix.
By Sonali Kohli
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If love can’t conquer all, at least now there’s hope that it conquers fear.

Researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany found that doses of oxytocin can help eliminate fear. The hormone bonds to the amygdala (the emotional center of the brain) and parts of the prefrontal cortex. In addition to playing a role in mother-child and romantic bonds, oxytocin reduces anxiety, according to the study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

When people go through a traumatic experience, certain triggers associated with that experience can set off that fear for them. The researchers simulated this fear by using Pavlovian fear conditioning—they showed images of houses and faces to 62 men, then administered a light electrical shock to their hands to associate that image with pain multiple times. Eventually, that image evoked fear for the subjects, as measured by their cold sweat and brain scans showing the part of the brain that registers fear.

Then, half the subjects received doses of oxytocin sprayed through the nose as they saw the images they were now conditioned to fear. Initially their fear response increased upon receiving the oxytocin (studies have shown that oxytocin can also make the brain more alert) , but after a few minutes, the amygdala activity in men receiving the oxytocin dropped lower than the control group, as did their sweating.

The natural process of overcoming fear involves a lengthy psychological process called “extinction,” during which people learn over time that the trigger for fear does not always mean danger is imminent. With oxytocin, the subjects completed their extinction process in 15 minutes or less. Under typical extinction therapy without the oxytocin, the control group overcame their fears within half an hour, the study’s first author and psychology PhD student Monika Eckstein told Quartz.

With more research, oxytocin along with therapy could help expedite the extinction process for deeper fears, says Eckstein.

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