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ABC's Nick Watt Takes Part in Experiment to Alter Memory and Expunge Fear

ABC News Reporter's Notebook By Nick Watt

(AMSTERDAM) -- "Does that hurt yet?" the lab assistant asked after administering an electric shock.

"Yes," I replied. "But I think I can take a little more." It was sore. But I was trying to be tough and cool.

She upped the voltage and hit the switch again. I convulsed, jumped from my chair and heard laughter from the other side of the wall. The lab assistant was laughing because my colleagues -- producer Paolo and cameraman Andy -- were laughing.

I was wired up for a bizarre experiment in an Amsterdam basement. Not an S&M basement, you understand, but the basement of the University of Amsterdam's psychology department.

The lab assistant was calibrating just how much voltage I needed for the shock to be unpleasant without making me really, really sore. Why? I was playing guinea pig in an experiment.

These Dutch psychologists believe they have found a chemical way to alter our memories -- specifically, to expunge fear from bad memories.

This treatment might one day help people exposed to traumatic events -- explosions, car wrecks, plane crashes -- who have developed develop post traumatic stress disorder, deep and often irrational fears associated with their painful memories.

After my time reporting in Iraq, I was one of those people and was treated with a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy. What's different here is these Dutch researchers suggest that chemicals, not therapy, could be used to remove fear from our memories.

"Part of the reason you get those associations is that your body produces a large amount of adrenaline when you go through an unpleasant experience," Professor Neil Greenberg of the Kings College in London told me. "So any memory of that traumatic experience would again cause you to pour out large amounts of adrenaline."

But for this particular experiment to work, researchers first needed to create fear in me. Hence, the electric shocks. I was wired up, headphones on and positioned in front of a computer screen. Images flashed before my eyes. And every time an image of a particular spider popped up on the screen, I received an electric shock and heard a harsh, high-pitched screech through my headphones. After a few rounds of this, I had effectively developed a fear for that image of the spider.

Now, in the actual experiment, what happens is that the next day the guinea pigs return and go through the process again -- the shocks, the noise, the images. ... The memory and the fear of the spider are essentially reopened.

A few of the guinea pigs are given a drug, an adrenaline suppressant called propranolol. For those guinea pigs, the memory and fear of the spider is reawakened by the photo, the shock and the noise. But because they are under the influence of proporanolol, the memory is re-imprinted in their brain without the fear response, without the adrenalin rush that comes with fear. So basically these people have been cured of their fear of that nasty spider picture.

The problem for me is that I was only in Amsterdam for one day. I got only as far as having the fear of the spider created in my brain. No one gave me any drugs. No one cured me of my fear of that spider. So now I'm scared of that spider forever.

And by the way, I'm also scared of cows.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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