Advances in technology over the last decade have led to a swift rise in the volume of research surrounding transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and its therapeutic effects. A team from the Würzburg University Hospital in Germany has just published a new study demonstrating how TMS, in conjunction with a virtual reality experience, can help alleviate anxiety disorders and essentially help people "unlearn" fears.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation works by directing a targeted magnetic field toward specific areas in the brain. Depending on the frequencies delivered this can either stimulate or inhibit the brain activity of the targeted area. Initially conceived as a research tool allowing scientists to understand exactly what roles certain areas of the brain play, TMS has more recently been explored as a potential new tool for treating an assortment of problems.

TMS devices have already been approved to treat migraines and some major depressive disorders, but other research is looking into its uses as a learning aid and a way to help visually-impaired people navigate the world.

This new study looks at how the technology could improve a patient's response when used in conjunction with a more traditional treatment method. Anxiety disorders are incredibly debilitating for many, from social phobias to more specific problems such as a fear of heights. Classically, the treatment for people with these disorders has been a type of cognitive behavioral therapy where one is exposed to the source of their anxiety under the supervision of a psychologist.

The team at the Würzburg University Hospital decided to examine whether this kind of classic therapy could be improved using TMS. Previous studies have shown that by targeting the frontal lobe with magnetic stimulation an anxiety response can be reduced, but the new research looks at how this could be incorporated into a specific treatment method for a targeted anxiety.

Thirty-nine subjects with an active fear of heights were split into two groups, including a control group which received fake TMS. The groups received 20 minutes of either real or fake TMS directed at the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, followed by virtual reality exposure to a dizzying height. After two sessions the group treated with the TMS prior to VR exposure exhibited reduced anxiety and avoidance symptoms compared to the control group that didn't receive the TMS.

"The findings demonstrate that all participants benefit considerably from the therapy in virtual reality and the positive effects of the intervention are still clearly visible even after three months," explains Professor Martin J. Herrmann, one of the researchers working on the study.

The researchers suggest that adding TMS and VR to an already well-proven treatment process increases the overall efficacy and essentially helps the brain "unlearn" its anxiety responses. The next phase for the study is to look at other forms of anxiety and see if the process is equally effective.

And the next fear that is being tackled? Arachnophobia.

The research was published in the journal Brain Stimulation.

Source: Würzburg University Hospital

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