A widely used heart drug may be able to stop frightening images or experiences from lodging in the memory and repeatedly resurfacing to cause fear and anxiety, researchers from the Netherlands reported (see story here).

“A team at the University of Amsterdam gave the medication propranolol to test subjects in a complex experiment that measured how people reacted when they were shown pictures of spiders they’d been taught to fear,” Bloomberg reports. “Propranolol is a so-called beta-blocker used to treat heart rhythm disturbances and high blood pressure.”

Here’s the study protiocol as reported by Bloomberg: The researchers first conditioned their test subjects to fear a particular kind of spider by showing them pictures of the spider, followed by an electrical shock to the wrist.

One day later, the subjects came back. By then, the experience had been consolidated and stored in their memory. This time, some were given propranolol and others were given placebos (control group) before being shown spider pictures again — with no electric shock. All the patients, including those who had taken propranolol, showed some fear of the pictures.

On the third day, when the placebo subjects were shown the spiders and given no shock, their fear response was high, while the propranalol users no longer showed fear. Then, just when they thought they were safe — zap, they get shocked again. The people in the placebo group were thrown back into a state of fear and anxiety but there was no return of fear in the group that took the drug.

The following image is my interpretation of how the researchers may have summarized the results of their experiment so that it can be easily understood by the general public:

Obviously, if the results of this study can be generalized to include all fears and not just the fear of spiders, then propranolol may be useful in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is something thousands of combat soldiers suffer from.

For many millions more of us, propranolol may help watch the nightly news again!

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