Using virtual exposure therapy and magnetic brain stimulation, researchers successfully treated people’s fear of heights.
Are you afraid of heights, spiders, or needles, or public speaking? Maybe you’re afraid of tiny spaces, or that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you. We’ve all got our fears, and getting rid of them is nearly impossible. Some treatments exist, of course, but results are mixed. Most of us are resigned simply to live with our fear. But one group of researchers is developing a new treatment program. The treatment involves magnetic brain stimulation and virtual reality and claims to cure your fear for good.
Zoning in on the brain
Scientists from the Würzburg University Hospital in Germany have been experimenting with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), using targeted magnetic fields to trigger increased activity in particular parts of the brain. Previous research has found that this type of therapy can be effective in treating depression. The researchers felt that it might prove useful in curing phobias as well.
“We knew from previous studies that a specific region in the frontal lobe of the human brain is important for unlearning anxiety,” says study author Martin J. Herrmann.
Curing the fear
To test their hypothesis, they turned to virtual reality. VR environments are real enough to the patients that they experience the same phobias they would in real life. Using several volunteers with a fear of heights, the researchers gave some of them treatments with TMS before subjecting them to dizzying (virtual) heights.
The researchers found that all of the patients benefited from the exposure to their fears in VR. Those that were also treated with TMS showed even more improvement. Patients whose brains were magnetically stimulated showed improvement even months later.
“The findings demonstrate that all participants benefit considerably from the therapy in virtual reality and the positive effects of the intervention are still clearly visible even after three months,” says Hermann.
The researchers are next going to try and tackle the fears of arachnids, and if they’re successful this type of treatment may see widespread adoption. Perhaps some magnets and a few VR sessions might be all it takes to get rid of your fears for good.