Neuroscientists work to eradicate phobias and anxiety, one bad memory at a time

| November-December 2011

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    Ellen Weinstein / www.ellenweinstein.com

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One winter evening, Etelle Higonnet and a friend were driving back from a Vermont ski trip when they stopped for fuel. They gassed up and bought a bag of M&M’s, then hit the road again. The journey was going smoothly until the car hit a patch of ice and skidded across several lanes of traffic, flipping over multiple times. Miraculously, the women walked away from the accident with only a few bruises.

The next night, they met up at a movie theater. When Higonnet walked past the snack counter, she caught a glimpse of some M&M’s. Suddenly, she began to shake and cry and fell to the floor in a full-blown panic attack.

Like all emotional experiences, trauma is encoded in the brain. The extra adrenaline that accompanies terrifying events inks those memories in boldface, making anxieties and phobias difficult to shake. As University of Virginia psychologist Bethany Teachman puts it, “We often say that we can get two-thirds of [anxiety patients] two-thirds of the way better.”

Through much of the 20th century, scientists thought the brain’s physical structure couldn’t change significantly after childhood. But recently, researchers have discovered that the adult brain can reprogram itself at any age—whether it’s learning multiplication tables, mastering chess, or relearning how to walk after a stroke. Scientists call the brain’s ability to be reshaped neuroplasticity.

Is it possible to exploit the brain’s malleability to treat serious anxiety disorders? Yes, says John Krystal, chief of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. Krystal believes that the aim of managing anxiety shouldn’t be to erase awful memories, but rather to blunt their damaging effects. One way to do that is to establish new memories that crowd out the painful ones—like falling off your bike and then continuing to ride it afterward. Eventually you build up enough happy memories to make you stop thinking about the time you fell.

A growing body of research suggests that a drug called D-cycloserine, an antibiotic sometimes used to treat tuberculosis, may expedite the process of building new memories. D-cycloserine greases the skids for glutamate—a neurotransmitter in the brain that makes it possible to weed out fear memories—kind of like a memory lubricant. It doesn’t alter bad memories, but it makes it easier to forge new, more comfortable memories around them.

Lauri Lumby
11/11/2011 7:54:55 PM

As a professional Spiritual Director and Hands-on Healing Practitioner, I have had success with trauma survivors and those who suffer with panic attack and anxiety disorders using a multi-pronged approach that does not require pharmaceuticals. For trauma, I employ the research of Peter Levine and explained in his book, "Waking the Tiger." Trauma gets caught in short term memory and by accessing the trauma and engaging the trapped adrenaline through intentional movement, one is able to release the trauma and move it into long-term memory which eliminates the typical emotional response to triggers. Anxiety and depression are healed and released by uncovering the underlying spiritual fear and bringing them to healing and release through a combination of spiritual practices and creative activities. Meditation, prayer, yoga and other spiritual practices are also supportive of these goals. Lauri Lumby http://yourspiritualtruth.com

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