"It's kind of nature's way of helping us," notes University of Michigan psychiatrist Brian Martis.
Martis is one of a small number of scientists who use cutting-edge imaging equipment to peek inside the brains of people with specific phobias and see how their brains differ from those who don't harbor such fears.
Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston found that compared with healthy volunteers, animal phobics displayed slight differences in some areas of the brain, such as the paralimbic cortex, that are linked to anxiety.
As researchers compile more clues about the underlying biology of specific phobias, Martis says, they could eventually develop new treatments. Meanwhile, others scientists are turning to rodents in search of drugs that can snuff out fearful associations more quickly than conventional methods.
Most phobics are treated using exposure therapy. Someone with a fear of spiders, for example, might be asked to look at a picture of a spider, then hold a plastic one, and then sit in a room with a caged spider, until the arachnophobe is finally comfortable holding the object of his angst.
But recently, scientists have become excited about a drug called D-cycloserine. Used for many years to treat tuberculosis, the drug also seems to extinguish fear in rats.
To see whether the same holds true in humans, Michael Davis and Barbara Rothbaum at Emory University gave D-cycloserine to people with a profound fear of heights and then treated them with conventional computer-based exposure therapy.
They found that people who received the drug required far fewer therapy sessions and were much more likely to ride elevators and brave bridges afterward than a control group who hadn't taken the drug.
Rothbaum said the drug might make it easier for people with specific phobias to avoid time-consuming and costly exposure sessions that often deter patients.
Meanwhile, insect phobics such as Garcia say they are counting the days until the cicadas are dead.
"I honestly wonder how other people don't have this kind of reaction," she says.
Medicine & Science