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Fear of spiders? You can escape that web

A tarantulis held Oak Park Conservatory. Sun-Times Medifile photo

A tarantula is held at Oak Park Conservatory. Sun-Times Media file photo

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Updated: July 2, 2012 9:23AM

For people with arachnophobia, holding a huge, hairy tarantula in their bare hand can help, a Northwestern University study has found.

A single brief therapy session involving holding or petting a tarantula changed the brain’s fear response in adults with the lifelong, debilitating phobia of spiders.

The “exposure therapy” was small, done on 12 adults with a spider phobia.

“A lot of people are afraid of spiders, but in order to meet the criteria [for a phobia], it has to be a clinical diagnosis and interfere with your life,” says study author Katherina Hauner, a postdoctoral fellow in neurology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “One participant would avoid walking in grass.”

The study — published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — is the first to document the immediate and long-term brain changes after treatment and also the first to illustrate how the brain reorganizes long-term to reduce fear, according to Hauner. In therapy lasting two to three hours, which was different for each person, the participants were taught troublesome tarantula thoughts were untrue.

They learned to approach the spider until they could touch the outside of the terrarium. Then, they touched the tarantula with a paintbrush, a glove and, eventually, with their bare hands.

Immediately after, an MRI scan showed the brain regions associated with fear decreased in activity when people encountered spider photos.

When the study participants were asked to touch the tarantula six months later, “They freaked out in a good way,” Hauner says. “They said they couldn’t believe they were doing this.”

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