Going to the top of a tall building makes a lot of people nervous, but if that brings physical changes like sweating, shaking, or crying, then you may have a phobia. Now, researchers at Emory University School of Medicine say they think they've found a way to control that.
Not long ago, climbing to the top of a stadium would have been a nightmare for Beth Cox. "I would just die," says Cox.
Her fear of heights was paralyzing. She would sweat, shake and cry, like five percent of people who share that kind of fear.
"It really controls their life. They don't want to drive over bridges; they don't want to go up elevators; they don't want to fly in planes, and so forth," says Dr. Michael Davis, a neuroscientist at Emory University School of Medicine.
Cox chose virtual reality therapy. With a headset on, she sees a simulated glass elevator that takes her up. Studies show fear is centered in an area of the brain called the amygdala, which contains a protein that allows you to get over fear.
Now, as part of a new study at Emory University, Cox received d-cycloserine, a medication typically used for tuberculosis. In high doses, it has an antibacterial effect, but in lose doses, which were used in this study, it appears to improve the power of that protein and increase your resistance to fear.
"What we reasoned is that if we could actually make that protein work better, then maybe we could speed up this process of getting over being afraid," says Dr. Davis.
Dr. Davis says early studies show it works. "What we found is that both a week later and three months later, that people who went back into the simulated glass elevator, that had the medication, were less fearful," says Dr. Davis.
So, how does a virtual world compare with real life? Cox put it to the test.
"I've been 27 floors, and I'm absolutely comfortable. Right now we're on 17, and I'm absolutely fine," says Cox as she ride in an elevator.