Pill May Help People Overcome Fears
By JANET McCONNAUGHEY,
Associated Press Writer
NEW ORLEANS -
Scientists say a pill may help people
overcome their worst phobias. In a small study released Monday, a drug
already on the market for tuberculosis helped people who were terrified of
heights get over that fear with only two therapy sessions instead of the
usual seven or eight.
The study, led by Michael Davis, a
professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory University
School of Medicine, was described at a session about unlearning fears at the
Society for Neuroscience meeting.
Davis based his work on research that had found the transmission of a
certain protein to a brain receptor were critical to overcoming fear. He
found that the TB drug, D-cycloserine, aids the transmission of the crucial
The drug, sold by Eli Lilly and Co. under the brand name Seromycin,
doesn't dissolve fear. But in rats, it helped them unlearn fears faster,
Davis said. Since it was already approved for use in people, he and Barbara
O. Rothbaum, director of the school's trauma and anxiety recovery program,
tested it on 28 acrophobics, people afraid of heights.
Each got a pill just before their two virtual reality therapy sessions,
in which computerized goggles are used to simulate going up a glass elevator
in a hotel lobby. Nobody knew whether the pill was a dummy or one of two
doses of D-cycloserine, the 500 mg used for TB or one-tenth that dose.
One participant dropped out. When checked one week after and three months
after the second session, the 10 patients who had gotten placebos did
slightly better than they had at the start. But the 17 on drug — the dose
didn't seem to matter — did as well as or better than people who had
finished the usual course of eight treatments, Davis said.
"That's pretty powerful stuff, and pretty convincing," said Alan
Steinberg, associate director of the National Center for Child Traumatic
Stress at UCLA.
And those who had taken the drug were twice as likely as those on the
placebo to be going up in elevators, driving over high bridges and doing
other things that fear of panic attacks had kept them from doing before the
"That's an especially positive aspect of these results," said Mark Bouton,
a psychology professor at the University of Vermont. Many times, he noted,
fear unlearned in one situation — elevators, for instance — may still show
up in other areas, such as high bridges or rooftop restaurants.
However, David Kupfer, a Falls Church, Va., cognitive behavioral
therapist with a specialty in phobias and other anxiety disorders, said that
even if larger studies confirm the findings, he probably would use it only
in a few patients.
Other research has indicated that people who go through therapy
unmedicated for such problems do better, in the long run, he said.
"People learn ... that they are the powerful agent of change, not the
medication," he said.
However, Kupfer said, it could be useful for people who have trouble with
exposure therapy, whether it is virtual reality, imagination or going out to
face the fear.