Nasal Spray Hailed as a Treatment for Phobias
The latest, but by no means the first, report on a potential treatment for phobias via nasal spray, has come from psychological research being conducted by the department of psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Dr Adam Guastella, a psychology researcher, states, “our research shows that the treatment of phobias can be greatly enhanced using compounds that make the brain more receptive.”
The magic ingredient, oxytocin, has previously been hailed as both a ‘trust hormone’ and a ‘mind reading hormone’. Experiments by the Zurich based researcher Michael Kosfeld, reported in the science journal Nature, found that three puffs of a nasal spray containing oxytocin made people more likely to trust strangers with their money. The ‘mind reading’ label came from similar experiments by Gregor Domes at Rostock University in Germany, in which men became significantly more able to read emotions conveyed in pictures of eyes, after they had inhaled oxytocin. At the time some consideration was given to its use a possible therapy for people with autism, who have difficulty understanding the emotions of others.
Oxytocin is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It occurs naturally in the body and appears to be involved in a number of activities. For example, oxytocin is released during orgasm in both men and women, it is important in cervical dilation before childbirth and it plays a part in breast feeding. Low levels of oxytocin have been found in people with autism and it is thought that one effect of the drug ecstasy is to stimulate oxytocin activity.
Markus Heinrichs at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, has been investigating the effects of oxytocin on 70 people with generalised social phobia. Thirty minutes before undergoing standard cognitive behavioural therapy, patients are given the nasal spray. According to Heinrichs, this leaves the recipients more open to engage fully with the requirements of the cognitive therapy and more confident in social situations. Heinrichs believes that oxytocin reduces the response of the amygdala, a region in the brain involved in the fear response.
The New South Wales study has also focused on oxytocin but in combination a substance known as D-cycloserine (DCS) an antibiotic that is used in cases of TB, but which is also known to have effects on human emotions. In his most recent research Guestella combined DCS with exposure therapy on 23 patients suffering from chronic states of shyness. The patients selected had the greatest difficulty even entering a room with other people in it, but Guestella asked both the treatment group and a further 23 receiving placebo medication to make a speech. He found that those receiving DCS experienced a dramatic reduction in fear and that this generalised into more lasting improvements in work and social relationships.