Overcoming fears and anxiety is an area of neuroscience that has long kept up at night. Now, scientists at Northwestern University are testing a new method to rid people of phobias and traumatic memories while they sleep. The idea involves training subjects to associate certain fears with an odor, then using a different odor to "train" their brains to eliminate the fear. The early research has proven successful on test subjects, but it hasn't yet been tried with pre-existing fears. Dr. Puneet Patni, sleep specialist with Kelsey-Seybold, is intrigued by the idea. "What they're trying to do sounds exciting," he tells KTRH. "It's also kind of a shot-in-the-dark approach, but if it works, great."
While Dr. Patni is somewhat skeptical of the method, he thinks the underlying theory behind it is solid. "When you think about dreams and you think about how we probably do consolidate our memories (during sleep), it just seems like the logical place to go to try to address some of these hard to tackle problems," he says. Dr. Patni agrees that sleep is a goldmine for delving into the human brain. "People probably entrain memories into their knowledge during sleep, and sleep is probably used to consolidate new things that we learned and experienced when we were awake."
The key to this particular method is the ability to re-train people's thoughts and fears without having to expose them to conscious terror. Researchers say all of the subjects had no idea what had happened during their sleep when they woke up. That stands in contrast with traditional fear extinction therapies, which involve directly exposing the person to the subject of their fear. "If you can do it in a more effective way, in which the patient doesn't have to suffer or re-experience those traumas, then that would be a great thing," says Dr. Patni. Researchers caution that it's much too early to know if this method would be effective at treating more serious problems, like post-traumatic stress disorder.