How does psychological therapy work? Exploring the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the reduction of experimental fear via spoken instructions.
Therapists improve mental health typically through verbal communication, which affect the thoughts and emotions of the patient. Our knowledge of the underlying neural processes of therapeutic change is limited, but feasible ways to study this have recently emerged. For example, research using fear conditioning has uncovered important emotional memory processes, which might be utilized in treatment. In fear conditioning, a fear memory is created by associating a neutral stimulus with an aversive outcome. This can later be removed through a process of repeated exposure, called extinction. We have proposed an extinction procedure based on verbal instructions which reduces fear as effectively as repeated exposure, and appears a valid experimental model for imaginal exposure, a widely used psychological treatment technique. Thus, this procedure provides an opportunity to study the impact of verbal instructions on emotional memory processes, using fear conditioning methodology. This project examines if extinction, driven by verbal instructions, utilizes the same neurobiological mechanisms as in vivo extinction, specifically regarding the dopaminergic dependence of memory consolidation, and the noradrenergic impact on extinction learning. In this way, the project contributes towards a neurobiological framework for some psychological treatments, and will provide pre-clinical proof-of-concept studies for drug-assisted verbal therapy, which can later be extended to clinical research.