Sleep Makes Fearful Memories a Little Less Scary by Maria Sanchez

Source: Google Images
Source: Google Images

Imagine living in a world where your emotions can be controlled in your dreams. You can stop daydreaming because science has made that possible. Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s fellow neuroscientist, Katherina Hauner, had made it possible.

It’s been proven that through exposure therapy, the treatment of phobias can be enhanced. Exposure therapy is a type of rehabilitation in which a person is gradually exposed to what they are most fearful of, whether it be an object, animal, or a traumatic event.

This is allows a person to confront and experience any event or stimuli relevant to their trauma and extinguish associations between trauma cues and fear responses.

Hauner and her colleagues conditioned 15 volunteers to fear the combination of a face, an electrical shock, and the scents of- mint, new sneakers, lemon, etc. Later on, the patients were put to sleep. While resting, one of the odors was presented once again, without the presence of either faces or shocks.

Even though the faces weren’t being presented, the memory of them associated with the scent instilled fear in these patients, even while they were sleeping. Reliving the memory was a traumatic experience for them.

However, reliving the memory over and over again made it less fearful to the patients. The reactions that came with the fear decreased with each time a patient was presented with the odor associated with a fearful recollection.

Some of the patients later learned that what they were fearful of was harmless and therefore, the trepidation had dissipated. “It’s a novel finding,” Hauner said.

Fear was measured in two ways: through small amounts of sweat in the skin, almost like in a polygraph examination (lie detector test) and through fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging).

Functional magnetic resonance images showed changes in regions of the brain associated with emotions, such as the amygdala. These changes in the brain proved that there was a decrease in reactivity to the odors presented during sleep.

Although the changes in the amount of fear were small, they are still significant. Scientists are still trying to prove whether or not they can further decrease the amount of fear a person feels or if they can even extinguish the fearful remembrance altogether.

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