Trouble fighting a fear? Sleep on it - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

Trouble fighting a fear? Sleep on it

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

If you have trouble dealing with a fear, sleep on it. There's a new treatment discovered by Northwestern medicine researchers that may tackle phobias during sleep.

There are a lot of therapies that help people get rid of specific fears or phobias by gradually exposing them to that very thing they are afraid of until the fear goes away. That desensitization treatment is done on someone who is awake and has never been applied during sleep, until recently.

Scents like mint and lemon were used to trigger a fear response among the participants. While they were awake, they received mild electric shocks while smelling a specific odor and looking at a picture. Then, they were re-introduced to the same smell while they were asleep.

Dr. Jay Gottfried, a neurologist at Northwestern Medicine led the study. He said repeated exposure to the scent while sleeping led to a decrease in fear. They figured that out by tracking brain waves along with how much the person sweated while asleep.

"What's nice about our findings is we can use odor in a specific way during sleep and basically administer it without the patient being aware," Dr. Gottfried says. "There's been a decline in the strength of that original fear memory. So, by basically repeatedly presenting this odor in sleep with no further shocks, we're able to create this safe memory."

Dr. Gottfried says this kind of therapy could be effective for people suffering from post-traumatic syndrome.

"War veterans or people who have been in war-torn areas and there are certain smells...gun powder, smoke, things like that...that would be a neat way to reduce the strength that those fear anxiety-based feelings," Gottfried explains.

But phobias, like fear of spiders or heights, can get tricky because the treatment uses odors to stimulate a fear memory.

"Its clear that smells have this kind of privileged access to memories and motion systems during sleep," says Dr. Gottfried. "There might be a way creative ways to try and use this for a kind of subconscious exposure therapy."

When the participants woke up, they were exposed to the image of that face that they'd been conditioned to fear and the fear response while awake was also lower.

This is the first study to show that emotional memories can be manipulated in humans while they are asleep. One thing Dr. Gottfried says they do not know is how long the effects of the therapy last.

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