When Fear Returns

When fear returns

Psychological counseling helps people overcome debilitating anxiety and painful memories of traumatic events in their lives -- giving them the chance to conquer their fears and live normal lives. But for some, the effects of therapy don’t ‘stick’ -- patients feel fine for long periods of time only to have a relapse where fears return in full force, a phenomenon researchers call fear renewal.

Did you know?

To create the sound effects of spiders being stepped on or squashed in the 1990 horror film Arachnophobia, people stepped on mustard packs or crunched potato chips.

Postdoctoral fellow Nicole Huff and Kevin LaBar, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, are working with Rachael Brady, director of the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE), to unravel why fears return. The DiVE facility is one of seven 6-sided, fully immersive virtual reality systems in the world. The team’s working hypothesis is that memories form patterns in the brain and when even a tiny part of that pattern is triggered--by a sound or smell or similar environment--the brain automatically resurrects the entire memory pattern.

Huff and her team expose volunteers to a series of fear inducing or fear calming experiences in the DiVE while running a skin conductance test that measures sweat production--a known gauge of stress. The experiments are conducted over a three-day period to give memories enough time to ”firm up.“ The images designed for the DiVE experiments can also be used in clinical MRIs, giving researchers a chance to actually see how the brain responds to the stimulus.

Such research is leading to a better understanding of the mechanisms of learning and memory and may ultimately provide practical guidance in how to direct therapy and to prevent fear renewal.