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Boo! Scientists seek ways to fight back against fear

By Seth Borenstein
AP Science Writer

WASHINGTON — Science is getting a grip on people’s fears.

As Americans revel in all things scary on Halloween, scientists say they now know better what’s going on inside our brains when a spook jumps out and scares us. Knowing how fear rules the brain should lead to treatments for a major medical problem: When irrational fears go haywire.

“We’re making a lot of pro-gress,” said University of Mich-igan psychology professor Ste-phen Maren. “We’re taking all of what we learned from the basic studies of animals and bringing that into the clinical practices that help people. Things are starting to come together in a very important way.”

About 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Fear is a basic primal emotion that is key to evolutionary survival. It’s one we share with animals. Genetics plays a big role in the development of overwhelming — and needless — fear, psychologists say. But so do traumatic events.

“Fear is a funny thing,” said Ted Abel, a fear researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. “One needs enough of it, but not too much of it.”

Armi Rowe, a Connecticut freelance writer and mother, said she used to be “one of those rational types who are usually calm under pressure.”

She was someone who would downhill ski the treacherous black diamond trails of snowy mountains.

Then one day, in the midst of coping with a couple of serious illnesses in her family, she felt fear closing in on her while driving alone. The crushing pain on her chest felt like a heart attack. She called 911.

“I was literally frozen with fear,” she said. It was an anxiety attack. The first of many.

The first sign she would get would be sweaty palms and then a numbness in the pit of the stomach and queasiness. Eventually it escalated until she felt as if she was being attacked by a wild animal.

False sense of danger

“There’s a trick to panic attacks,” said David Carbonell, a Chicago psychologist specializing in treating anxiety disorders. “You’re experiencing this powerful discomfort, but you’re getting tricked into treating it like danger.”

These days, thanks to counseling, self-study, calming exercises and introspection, Rowe knows how to stop or at least minimize those attacks early on.

Scientists figure they can improve that fear-dampening process by learning how fear runs through the brain and body.

The fear hot spot is the amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the deep brain.

The amygdala isn’t responsible for all of people’s fear response, but it’s like the burglar alarm that connects to everything else, said New York University psychology and neural science professor Elizabeth Phelps.

Emory University psychiatry and psychology professor Michael Davis found that a certain chemical reaction in the amygdala is crucial in the way mice and people learn to overcome fear. When that reaction is deactivated in mice, they never learn to counter their fears.

Scientists found D-cycloserine, a drug already used to fight hard-to-treat tuberculosis, strengthens that good chemical reaction in mice.

Working in combination with therapy, it seems to do the same in people. It was first shown effective with people who have a fear of heights. It also worked in tests with other types of fear, and it’s now being studied in survivors of the World Trade Center attacks and the Iraq war.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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