Magnetic fields to alleviate anxiety

September 13, 2017, Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg
People suffering from a fear of heights experience the anxiety also in virtual reality – even though they are aware that they are not really in a dangerous situation. Credit: VTPlus

It is possible to unlearn fears. And this works even better when a specific region of the brain has previously been stimulated magnetically. This has been shown by researchers from the Würzburg University Hospital in a new study.

Nearly one in seven Germans suffer from an anxiety disorder. Some panic upon boarding an aircraft, others find it impossible to enter a room with a spider on the wall, and others prefer the staircase over the elevator – even to get to the 10th floor – because riding in elevators elevates their heart rate.

What sound like funny anecdotes are often debilitating conditions for the sufferers. Sometimes their anxiety can affect them to a point that they are unable to follow a normal daily routine. But help is available: "Cognitive behavioural therapy is an excellent treatment option," says Professor Martin J. Herrmann, a psychologist at the Center of Mental Health of the Würzburg University Hospital. This form of therapy deliberately exposes anxiety patients to the situations they feel threatened by – under the individual psychological supervision of an expert.

Brain stimulation improves response

However, current studies have shown that this type of intervention does not benefit all persons in equal measure. This is why Herrmann and researchers from the Department of Clinical Psychology of the University of Würzburg have been looking for ways to improve the patients' response to – by using the so-called . In fact, a positive effect was observed among the study participants treated with this method.

"We knew from previous studies that a specific region in the frontal lobe of the human brain is important for unlearning anxiety," Martin J. Herrmann says. He adds that initial studies have shown that magnetically stimulating this brain region can improve the effectiveness of unlearning anxiety responses in the laboratory. In a recently published study, the team investigated whether this also works for treating a fear of heights.

The study

To this end, 39 participants with a pronounced acrophobia were taken to dizzying heights during two sessions – not in real life, however, but through virtual reality. It does not matter that the environment is not real: "The people feel actual fear in a virtual reality – although they know that they are not really in a dangerous situation," Herrmann explains.

The scientists stimulated the frontal lobe of some of the anxiety patients for about 20 minutes before entering the virtual world; the other group was only administered a pseudo stimulation. The result: "The findings demonstrate that all participants benefit considerably from the therapy in virtual reality and the positive effects of the intervention are still apparent even after three months," Herrmann says. Additionally, stimulating the accelerated the therapy response.

Next, the researchers want to study whether this method is also suitable to treat other forms of by conducting a further study for arachnophobic patients.

Explore further: Psychotherapy normalizes the brain in social phobia

More information: Martin J. Herrmann et al. Medial prefrontal cortex stimulation accelerates therapy response of exposure therapy in acrophobia, Brain Stimulation (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.brs.2016.11.007

Related Stories

Psychotherapy normalizes the brain in social phobia

February 6, 2017
Anxiety in social situations is not a rare problem: Around one in ten people are affected by social anxiety disorder during their lifetime. Social anxiety disorder is diagnosed if fears and anxiety in social situations significantly ...

New risk factors for anxiety disorders

February 24, 2017
Mental, social and inherited factors all play a role in anxiety disorders. In the journal Molecular Psychiatry, a research team from Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany, describes a hitherto ...

Can virtual reality help treat anxiety in older people?

February 18, 2015
Up to 25% of people aged 65 and over experience varying degrees of anxiety. Although cognitive behavioural therapy is a preferred treatment approach, it has limitations as people age (decreased mobility and visualization ...

Could 'virtual reality' treat alcoholism?

June 24, 2015
A form of 'virtual-reality' therapy may help people with alcohol dependence reduce their craving for alcohol, a new study suggests.

Cognitive behavior therapy significantly reduced depression and anxiety in chronic pain patients

June 15, 2017
The results of a study presented today at the Annual European Congress of Rheumatology (EULAR) 2017 has shown that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that focuses on psychological ...

Recommended for you

Eye training to help children with dyspraxia

September 24, 2018
Children with a coordination disorder can improve skills like throwing and catching with new training videos developed by the University of Exeter.

Take a step back from yourself to better realize the benefits of awe

September 24, 2018
Religion and nature can both lead to awe, and turning to one or the other is a common coping strategy for the stress that might accompany an upcoming presentation, exam or performance.

Stepfathers' 'Cinderella effect' challenged by new study

September 24, 2018
Long-held assumptions that stepfathers are far more likely to be responsible for child deaths than genetic parents have been challenged by researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Even toddlers weigh risks, rewards when making choices

September 21, 2018
Every day, adults conduct cost-benefit analyses in some form for decisions large and small, economic and personal: Bring a lunch or go out? Buy or rent? Remain single or start a family? All are balances of risk and reward.

Quitting junk food produces similar withdrawal-type symptoms as drug addiction

September 20, 2018
If you plan to try and quit junk food, expect to suffer similar withdrawal-type symptoms—at least during the initial week—like addicts experience when they attempt to quit using drugs.

In depression the brain region for stress control is larger

September 20, 2018
Although depression is one of the leading psychiatric disorders in Germany, its cause remains unclear. A recent study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig, Germany, found ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.