MIT Scientists Identify Neural Circuit That Is Activated During “Exposure Therapy” for Phobias in Animal Model; Fear Extinction Result Is Extended in Time; Finding May Lead to Improved Treatment of Phobias and PTSD in Humans

People who are too frightened of flying to board an airplane, or too fearful of spiders to venture into the basement, can seek a kind of treatment called exposure therapy. In a safe environment, they repeatedly face cues such as photos of planes or black widows, as a way to stamp out their fearful response — a process known as extinction. Unfortunately, the effects of exposure therapy are not permanent, and many people experience a relapse. MIT scientists have now identified a way to enhance the long-term benefit of extinction in rats, offering a way to improve the therapy in people suffering from phobias and more complicated conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Work conducted in the laboratory of Ki Goosens, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, has pinpointed a neural circuit that becomes active during exposure therapy in the rats. In a study published online on September 27, 2016 in eLife, the researchers showed that they could stretch the therapy’s benefits for at least two months by boosting the circuit’s activity during treatment. The open-access article is titled “Amygdala-Ventral Striatum Circuit Activation Decreases Long-Term Fear.” “When you give extinction training to humans or rats, and you wait long enough, you observe a phenomenon called spontaneous recovery, in which the fear that was originally learned comes back,” Dr. Goosens explains. “It’s one of the barriers to this type of therapy. You spend all this time going through it, but then it’s not a permanent fix for your problem.” According to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, 18 percent of U.S.
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