Cortical oxygenation during exposure therapy - in situ fNIRS measurements in arachnophobia
Exposure therapy is a well-studied and highly efficacious treatment for phobic disorders. Although the neurobiological model of fear is well underpinned by various studies, the mechanisms of exposure therapy are still under discussion. Partly, this is due to the fact that most neurophysiological methods like fMRI are not able to be used in the natural therapeutic settings. The current study used in situ measurements of cortical blood oxygenation (O2Hb) during exposure therapy by means of functional near-infrared spectroscopy. 37 subjects (N = 30 completers) underwent exposure therapy during 5 adapted sessions in which subjects were exposed to Tegenaria Domestica (domestic house spider - experimental condition) and Dendrobaena Veneta/ Eisenaia hortensis (red earthworm - control condition). Compared to the control condition, patients showed higher O2Hb levels in the anticipation and exposure phase of spider exposure in areas of the cognitive control network (CCN). Further, significant decreases in O2Hb were observed during the session accompanied by reductions in fear related symptoms. However, while symptoms decreased in a linear quadratic manner, with higher reductions in the beginning of the session, CCN activity decreased linearly. Further, higher anxiety at the beginning of session one was associated with increased O2Hb in the CCN. This association decreased within the following sessions. The current study sheds light on the neuronal mechanisms of exposure therapy. The results are discussed in light of a phase model of exposure therapy that posits a role of cognitive control in the beginning and routine learning at the end of the therapy session.