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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Jun 5;109(23):9203-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1205242109. Epub 2012 May 23.

Exposure therapy triggers lasting reorganization of neural fear processing.

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  • 1Department of Neurology, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL 60611, USA.


A single session of exposure therapy can eliminate recalcitrant and disabling fear of phobogenic objects or situations. We studied neural mechanisms of this remarkable outcome by monitoring changes in brain activity as a result of successful 2-h treatment. Before treatment, phobogenic images excited activity in a network of regions, including amygdala, insula, and cingulate cortex, relative to neutral images. Successful therapy dampened responsiveness in this fear-sensitive network while concomitantly heightening prefrontal involvement. Six months later, dampened fear-network activity persisted but without prefrontal engagement. Additionally, individual differences in the magnitude of visual cortex activations recorded shortly after therapy predicted therapeutic outcomes 6 mo later, which involved persistently diminished visual responsiveness to phobogenic images. Successful therapy thus entailed stable reorganization of neural responses to initially feared stimuli. These effects were linked to fear-extinction mechanisms identified in animal models, thus opening new opportunities for the treatment and prevention of debilitating anxiety disorders.

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