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Concept: Phobia


Emotional trauma is transmitted across generations. For example, children witnessing their parent expressing fear to specific sounds or images begin to express fear to those cues. Within normal range, this is adaptive, although pathological fear, such as occurs in posttraumatic stress disorder or specific phobias, is also socially transmitted to children and is thus of clinical concern. Here, using a rodent model, we report a mother-to-infant transfer of fear to a novel peppermint odor, which is dependent on the mother expressing fear to that smell in pups' presence. Examination of pups' neural activity using c-Fos early gene expression and (14)C 2-deoxyglucose autoradiography during mother-to-infant fear transmission revealed lateral and basal amygdala nuclei activity, with a causal role highlighted by pharmacological inactivation of pups' amygdala preventing the fear transmission. Maternal presence was not needed for fear transmission, because an elevation of pups' corticosterone induced by the odor of the frightened mother along with a novel peppermint odor was sufficient to produce pups' subsequent aversion to that odor. Disruption of axonal tracts from the Grueneberg ganglion, a structure implicated in alarm chemosignaling, or blockade of pups' alarm odor-induced corticosterone increase prevented transfer of fear. These memories are acquired at younger ages compared with amygdala-dependent odor-shock conditioning and are more enduring following minimal conditioning. Our results provide clues to understanding transmission of specific fears across generations and its dependence upon maternal induction of pups' stress response paired with the cue to induce amygdala-dependent learning plasticity. Results are discussed within the context of caregiver emotional responses and adaptive vs. pathological fears social transmission.

Concepts: Anxiety, Nervous system, Psychological trauma, Stress, Anxiety disorder, Social anxiety disorder, Phobia, Acrophobia


The current study explored the role of valence and self-relevance in size perception of neutral and aversive animals. In Experiment 1, participants who were highly fearful of spiders and control (low fear of spiders) participants rated the size and unpleasantness of spiders and other neutral animals (birds and butterflies). We found that although individuals with both high and low fear of spiders rated spiders as highly unpleasant, only the highly fearful participants rated spiders as larger than butterflies. Experiment 2 included additional pictures of wasps (not self-relevant, but unpleasant) and beetles. The results of this experiment replicated those of Experiment 1 and showed a similar bias in size estimation for beetles, but not for wasps. Mediation analysis revealed that in the high-fear group both relevance and valence influenced perceived size, whereas in the control group only valence affected perceived size. These findings suggest that the effect of highly relevant stimuli on size perception is both direct and mediated by valence.

Concepts: Scientific method, Insect, Wasp, Spider, Spiders, Phobia, Itsy Bitsy Spider, Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini


Numerous imaging studies have confirmed the amygdala as prominent within a neural network mediating specific phobia, including arachnophobia. We report the case of a patient in whom arachnophobia was abolished after left temporal mesial lobectomy, with unchanged fear responses to other stimuli. The phenomenon of abolition of specific phobia after amygdala removal has not, to our knowledge, been previously reported.

Concepts: 2006 albums, Fear, Social anxiety disorder, Phobia, Specific phobia, Phobias, Acrophobia


Phobias are usually described as irrational and persistent fears of certain objects or situations, and causes of such fears are difficult to identify. We describe an unusual but common phobia (trypophobia), hitherto unreported in the scientific literature, in which sufferers are averse to images of holes. We performed a spectral analysis on a variety of images that induce trypophobia and found that the stimuli had a spectral composition typically associated with uncomfortable visual images, namely, high-contrast energy at midrange spatial frequencies. Critically, we found that a range of potentially dangerous animals also possess this spectral characteristic. We argue that although sufferers are not conscious of the association, the phobia arises in part because the inducing stimuli share basic visual characteristics with dangerous organisms, characteristics that are low level and easily computed, and therefore facilitate a rapid nonconscious response.

Concepts: Fear, Paranoia, Phobia, Phobias, Claustrophobia, Panic, Arachnophobia, Ophidiophobia


This study investigates enhanced visuomotor processing of phobic compared to fear-relevant and neutral stimuli. We used a response priming design to measure rapid, automatic motor activation by natural images (spiders, snakes, mushrooms, and flowers) in spider-fearful, snake-fearful, and control participants. We found strong priming effects in all tasks and conditions; however, results showed marked differences between groups. Most importantly, in the group of spider-fearful individuals, spider pictures had a strong and specific influence on even the fastest motor responses: Phobic primes entailed the largest priming effects, and phobic targets accelerated responses, both effects indicating speeded response activation by phobic images. In snake-fearful participants, this processing enhancement for phobic material was less pronounced and extended to both snake and spider images. We conclude that spider phobia leads to enhanced processing capacity for phobic images. We argue that this is enabled by long-term perceptual learning processes.

Concepts: Perception, Learning, Spider, Snake, Phobia, Specific phobia, Arachnophobia


Two experiments tested the effect of exposure to masked phobic stimuli at a very brief stimulus onset asynchrony on reducing the subjective experience of fear caused by in vivo exposure to a feared object. In the main experiment, 35 spider-fearful and 35 non-fearful participants were identified with a questionnaire and a Behavioural Avoidance Test (BAT) with a live tarantula. One week later, they were individually administered one of two continuous series of masked images: spiders or flowers. They engaged in the BAT again immediately thereafter. They provided ratings of subjective fear at the end of each BAT (pre- and post-manipulation). Very brief exposure to images of spiders reduced the fearful group’s and not the non-fearful group’s experience of fear at the end of the BAT. This effect was replicated with another sample of 26 spider-fearful participants from the same population. Theoretical implications are discussed.

Concepts: Empiricism, Experiment, Fear, Phobia


Trypophobia refers to the fear of, or aversion to, clusters of holes. We assessed clinical features of trypophobia and investigated whether it most resembled a specific phobia or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Concepts: Anxiety, Fear, Anxiety disorders, Obsessive–compulsive disorder, Phobia, Specific phobia, Phobias, Acrophobia


Memories become labile and malleable to modification when recalled [1]. Fear-conditioning experiments in both rodents and humans indicate that amygdala-localized short-term fear memories can be attenuated by disruption of their reconsolidation with extinction training soon after memory activation [2-7]. However, this may not be true for natural long-term fears. Studies in rodents indicate that although it is possible to disrupt the reconsolidation of older memories [8-11], they appear to be more resistant [1, 3, 9, 12, 13]. In humans, 1-week-old conditioned fear memories have been attenuated by behaviorally induced disruption of reconsolidation [14], but it remains to be seen whether this is possible for naturally occurring long-term fears and whether the underlying neural mechanisms are similar to those found in experimental fear-conditioning paradigms. Using functional brain imaging in individuals with a lifelong fear of spiders, we show that fear memory activation followed by repeated exposure to feared cues after 10 min, which disrupts reconsolidation, attenuates activity in the basolateral amygdala at re-exposure 24 hr later. In contrast, repeated exposure 6 hr after fear memory activation, which allows for reconsolidation, did not attenuate amygdala activity. Disrupted, but not undisrupted, reconsolidation facilitated approach behavior to feared cues, and approach behavior was inversely related to amygdala activity during re-exposure. We conclude that memory activation immediately preceding exposure attenuates the neural and behavioral expression of decades-old fear memories and that, similar to experimentally induced fear memories, the basolateral amygdala is crucially involved in this process.

Concepts: Psychology, Amygdala, Memory, Fear, Phobia


Although in vivo exposure is the treatment of choice for specific phobias, some acceptability problems have been associated with it. Virtual Reality exposure has been shown to be as effective as in vivo exposure, and it is widely accepted for the treatment of specific phobias, but only preliminary data are available in the literature about the efficacy of Augmented Reality. The purpose of the present study was to examine the efficacy and acceptance of two treatment conditions for specific phobias in which the exposure component was applied in different ways: In vivo exposure (N = 31) versus an Augmented Reality system (N = 32) in a randomized controlled trial. “One-session treatment” guidelines were followed. Participants in the Augmented Reality condition significantly improved on all the outcome measures at post-treatment and follow-ups. When the two treatment conditions were compared, some differences were found at post-treatment, favoring the participants who received in vivo exposure. However, these differences disappeared at the 3- and 6-month follow-ups. Regarding participants' expectations and satisfaction with the treatment, very positive ratings were reported in both conditions. In addition, participants from in vivo exposure condition considered the treatment more useful for their problem whereas participants from Augmented Reality exposure considered the treatment less aversive. Results obtained in this study indicate that Augmented Reality exposure is an effective treatment for specific phobias and well accepted by the participants.

Concepts: Randomized controlled trial, In vivo, Efficacy, Virtual reality, Phobia, Specific phobia, Phobias, Augmented reality


Research on automatic processes in fear has emphasized the provocation of fear responses rather than their attenuation. We have previously shown that the repeated presentation of feared images without conscious awareness via backward masking reduces avoidance of a live tarantula in spider-phobic participants. Herein we investigated the neural basis for these adaptive effects of masked exposure. 21 spider-phobic and 21 control participants, identified by a psychiatric interview, fear questionnaire, and approaching a live tarantula, viewed stimuli in each of three conditions: (1) very brief exposure (VBE) to masked images of spiders, severely limited awareness; (2) clearly visible exposure (CVE) to spiders, full awareness; and (3) masked images of flowers (control), severely limited awareness. Only VBE to masked spiders generated neural activity more strongly in phobic than in control participants, within subcortical fear, attention, higher-order language, and vision systems. Moreover, VBE activated regions that support fear processing in phobic participants without causing them to experience fear consciously. Counter-intuitively, CVE to the same spiders generated stronger neural activity in control rather than phobic participants within these and other systems. CVE deactivated regions supporting fear regulation and caused phobic participants to experience fear. CVE-induced activations also correlated with measures of explicit fear ratings, whereas VBE-induced activations correlated with measures of implicit fear (color-naming interference of spider words). These multiple dissociations between the effects of VBE and CVE to spiders suggest that limiting awareness of exposure to phobic stimuli through visual masking paradoxically facilitates their processing, while simultaneously minimizing the experience of fear. Hum Brain Mapp, 2017. © 2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Concepts: Arthropod, Consciousness, Fear, Spider, Phobia, Spider bite, Tarantula, Claustrophobia