In continuation of my update on oxytocin...
Frightening experiences do not quickly fade from memory. A team of researchers under the guidance of the University of Bonn Hospital has now been able to demonstrate in a study that the bonding hormone oxytocin inhibits the fear center in the brain and allows fear stimuli to subside more easily. This basic research could also usher in a new era in the treatment of anxiety disorders. The study has already appeared in advance online in the journal "Biological Psychiatry". The print edition will be available in a few weeks.
Significant fear becomes deeply entrenched in memory. Following a car accident, for example, it is difficult to manage street traffic once again - even screeching tires can evoke significant anxiety. Scientists refer to this as "conditioning". Certain images or noises are very closely intertwined in the brain with the experience of pain or fear. Only gradually does one learn that not every screeching tire means danger. This active overwriting in the memory is known as "extinction". "In this process, however, the original contents of the memory are not erased but instead merely overlaid with positive experiences," explains Prof. Dr. Dr. René Hurlemann from the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy of the University of Bonn Hospital. If there are dangerous situations once again, the fear, which was believed to have been already overcome, frequently flares up once more.
Extinction is often used in therapy for anxiety disorders. For example, a person suffering from a spider phobia will gradually and increasingly come face to face with spiders. First the patient has to view photos of spiders and then look at living examples until finally he holds a tarantula in his hand. When people with an anxiety disorder experience as frequently as possible the fact that they do not need to fear the trigger, their fear is reduced. "However, this can take a very long time, because this confrontation with the fearful situation frequently has to be experienced. In addition, there may be relapses because the original trace of fear is still anchored in the memory," reports Prof. Hurlemann. This is why therapists seek a possibility for "overwriting" the fearful memory in a faster and longer-lasting way.