The study, which is the first to manipulate emotional memory in humans during sleep, potentially offers a new way to enhance the typical daytime treatment of phobias through exposure therapy by adding a nighttime component. Exposure therapy is a common treatment for phobia and involves a gradual exposure to the feared object or situation until the fear is extinguished.
Katherina Hauner, a postdoctoral fellow in neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine said that the study showed a small but significant decrease in fear and if it can be extended to pre-existing fear, the treatment of phobias can be enhanced during sleep.
In the study, 15 healthy human subjects received mild electric shocks while seeing two different faces. They also smelled a specific odorant while viewing each face and being shocked, so the face and the odorant both were associated with fear. Subjects received different odorants to smell with each face such as woody, clove, new sneaker, lemon or mint.
Then, when a subject was asleep, one of the two odorants was re-presented, but in the absence of the associated faces and shocks. This occurred during slow wave sleep when memory consolidation is thought to occur. Sleep is very important for strengthening new memories, Hauner noted.
"While this particular odorant was being presented during sleep, it was reactivating the memory of that face over and over again which is similar to the process of fear extinction during exposure therapy," Hauner said.
When the subjects woke up, they were exposed to both faces. When they saw the face linked to the smell they had been exposed to during sleep, their fear reactions were lower than their fear reactions to the other face.
The study will be published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
--ANI (Posted on 23-09-2013)