Unlearning Our Fears

A new type of treatment may someday help people overcome anxiety.

By Colin Allen, published October 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Anxiety sufferers may soon have a new treatment, thanks to a study showing that mice can overcome fears. A short yet intense burst of stress-provoking stimuli helped the mice conquer their fear. A similar model in human treatment might prove equally successful at helping the anxious overcome their worries.

Assistant professor of psychiatry Mark Barad and colleagues at the University of California at Los Angeles taught mice to fear white noise by giving them a mild shock when the sound was played. After as little as two repetitions, the mice would freeze--a fear response--whenever they heard white noise, even when there was no accompanying shock.

To help the mice recover, the researchers repeatedly exposed them to bursts of just the white noise at either 6-, 60- or 600-second intervals. The mice group that experienced the 6-second-interval sounds eventually stopped freezing, while the other two groups never lost their fear response.

"They are learning something new," says Barad. "They are learning to suppress their fear.”

It took longer to overcome fear than to become traumatized. The mice that successfully recovered took 10 noise bursts--about 20 minutes--to overcome the effects of the original two minutes of white noise and pain.

The study was published this October in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Process.