Background Although disrupting the process of memory reconsolidation has a great potential for clinical practice, the fear-amnesic effects are typically demonstrated through Pavlovian conditioning. Given that older and stronger memories are generally more resistant to change, we tested whether disrupting reconsolidation would also diminish fear in individuals who had developed a persistent spider fear outside the laboratory. Methods Spider-fearful participants received a single dose of 40 mg of the noradrenergic β-blocker propranolol (n = 15), double-blind and placebo-controlled (n = 15), after a short 2-min exposure to a tarantula. To test whether memory reactivation was necessary to observe a fear-reducing effect, one additional group of spider-fearful participants (n = 15) received a single dose of 40 mg propranolol without memory reactivation. Results Disrupting reconsolidation of fear memory transformed avoidance behavior into approach behavior in a virtual binary fashion - an effect that persisted at least 1 year after treatment. Interestingly the β-adrenergic drug did initially not affect the self-declared fear of spiders but instead these reports followed the instant behavioral transformation several months later. Conclusions Our findings are in sharp contrast with the currently pharmacological and cognitive behavioral treatments for anxiety and related disorders. The β-adrenergic blocker was only effective when the drug was administered upon memory reactivation, and a modification in cognitive representations was not necessary to observe a change in fear behavior. A new wave of treatments that pharmacologically target the synaptic plasticity underlying learning and memory seems to be within reach.
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