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Good night’s sleep might be key to reducing phobias, NU study suggests

Woman sleeping bed with eye mask

Woman sleeping in bed with eye mask

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Updated: November 1, 2013 6:07AM

Could you overcome your fears while you sleep? That’s what a new study suggests.

The study, which was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, showed for the first time that emotional memories — particularly fearful ones — can be weakened with sleep-based tactics.

Based on the findings, lead author Katherina Hauner, who did the research as a postdoctoral fellow in neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says it’s hopeful that a good night’s slumber may reduce phobias and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“But I’d be delusional if I were to suggest taking what I did here and applying it to a patient,” Hauner said. “There are many more years of research.”

For instance, because the study took place in a day, it’s not clear if the effect lasts beyond that day, Hauner noted.

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 — such as a new sneaker or peppermint — to smell with each face.

Then, when a subject was asleep, one of the two odorants was re-presented, but in the absence of the associated faces and shocks.

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, such as how much they sweat, “showed a small but significant decrease in fear.”

“The idea is that the feared stimulus is presented again and again and again. Eventually, the fear response tends to decrease,” Hauner said.

Director of Rush University Medical Center’s Sleep Disorders Service and Research Center James K. Wyatt, who did not take part in the study, said “the follow-up studies could be fascinating.”

“This study also highlights that a sleeping brain is certainly not an inactive brain; one of the many functions of sleep is for the processing and reprocessing of memory,” Wyatt said.

Twitter: @MonifaThomas1

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