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Paul Siegel Receives Major Grant to Further His Research into Treating Phobias

Treating Phobias: What You Don't Know Might Help You

If you seek treatment for an anxiety disorder, your therapy will probably involve facing down your fear. A military veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for instance, might watch videos of mines exploding and medics rushing to the aid of injured soldiers until, eventually, the veteran's pulse no longer races at the sight.

For many people, though, the prospect of confrontation is so terrifying that they never look for help. But a new way of treating anxiety disorders may soon be possible, thanks to continuing research by Assistant Professor of Psychology Paul Siegel.

Siegel is exploring a technique that might take just enough edge off a sufferer's fear to make therapy feasible. For the past seven years, he's been testing the hypothesis that subliminal stimuli—images that flash so quickly the viewer isn't aware of them—can diminish fear enough to make a crucial difference.

"If fear can be reduced unconsciously, that could get people who are refusing treatment over the hump, so that maybe they'll be willing to confront what they're afraid of," Siegel says.

In September, Siegel and collaborator Bradley Peterson, director of the Center for Developmental Neuropsychiatry at the New York State Psychiatric Institute of Columbia University, received two grants to support the latest phase of this research. With a $465,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health and a $60,000 Young Investigator Grant from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, Siegel and Peterson will use brain imaging to study how a phobic person's brain responds to subliminal pictures of the thing he or she fears.

If the phobic brain responds as expected, this study will be the first to show that the brain can adaptively learn from stimuli that are processed without awareness, says Siegel. He hopes eventually to test the technique with other kinds of fears, such as those connected with PTSD and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). "If, as several studies suggest, the fear regulation circuitry is similar across anxiety disorders, hopefully what we're doing will be applicable not only to fear of spiders, but to other fears that are more impairing." 

The funding from the grants will allow a recent Purchase College graduate, Richard Warren '12, to be the lead research assistant of the project, and enable Purchase College senior psychology majors to conduct their senior projects based on the research.

"This will be a once-in-an-education opportunity for the students involved in this project," Siegel says.

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