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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

Tuberculosis Drug May Help Fear of Heights

Drug May Speed Therapy for Phobias and Anxiety
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Nov. 8, 2004 -- A drug used to treat tuberculosis may help people overcome their fear of heights and other phobias.

Researchers found adding the drug to behavioral therapy using virtual reality helped people with a fear of heights (acrophobia) overcome their phobia and anxiety faster and more effectively than without it.

Researchers say the tuberculosis drug, known as D-cycloserine (DCS), acts on a region of the brain called the amygdala, which governs the fear response. Previous studies of DCS have shown that it helped fight fear in rodents. This study shows it appears to have the same effect in humans with a fear of heights when combined with psychotherapy.

The results of the study appear in the November issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Drug May Help Cure Fear of Heights

Researchers say behavioral psychotherapy uses a process called fear extinction to treat people with phobias, like fear of heights, as well as more complicated conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Fear extinction involves repeated exposure to a fearful memory or object, in the absence of adverse consequences," says Michael Davis, PhD, of the Emory University School of Medicine, in a news release.

In this case, researchers used virtual reality helmets that gave the 28 participants who suffered from a fear of heights the sense of ascending in a glass elevator.

Half of the participants with a fear of heights were treated with a dose of DCS just prior to each of their two behavioral therapy sessions, and the other half received a placebo. Researchers then evaluated the effects of treatment one week and three months later.

The study showed that people with a fear of heights who received DCS showed significantly greater improvement than those who got the placebo.

For example, those treated with the tuberculosis drug showed less height-related anxiety, avoidance of high places, and negative attitudes about heights and also reported a greater number of real-world exposures to high places. These effects were detected one week after treatment and were maintained for three months.

"We hoped to facilitate the effects of cognitive behavioral therapy by combining DCS with virtual reality therapy in humans," says Davis. "Our results demonstrate that this combination is effective, and that these effects can be long lasting."

The researchers who conducted the study have submitted a patent for use of DCS in psychotherapy for the treatment of fear of heights and other phobias.

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