According to study findings just published in Nature Neuroscience, targeted brain training during sleep may soften the blow of painful memories. This research may have a far-reaching impact on the treatment of psychiatric disorders such as phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Neuroscientist Katherina Hauner and her colleagues at Northwestern University used a form of exposure therapy on volunteers to establish a fear response. Participants were given mild electric shocks as they looked at pictures of faces while being exposed to distinct aromas, such as lemon or mint. Then they took a nap while their brain waves were monitored. While the volunteers were in slow-wave sleep—a phase when new memories are typically reinforced—they were exposed to an odor at 30-second intervals, but without the electric shock.

After waking, the participants experienced a lower fear response (less sweating) to the odor + face combination. There were also changes in activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with emotion and fear. Based on these changes, the researchers concluded that the exposure treatment had neutralized the fearful association.

Volunteers who slept longer and received more of the treatment experienced the most reduction in fear response. Future research will help us learn how long-lasting the effects of this treatment might be for reducing anxiety associated with deeply entrenched traumatic memories.

Find out more at

Read about Ed Decker.

Leave a comment


Subscribe to Our Newsletter