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Singular and combined effects of transcranial infrared laser stimulation and exposure therapy on pathological fear: a randomized clinical trial.

BACKGROUND: Preclinical findings suggest that transcranial infrared laser stimulation (TILS) improves fear extinction learning and cognitive function by enhancing prefrontal cortex (PFC) oxygen metabolism. These findings prompted our investigation of treating pathological fear using this non-invasive stimulation approach either alone to the dorsolateral PFC (dlPFC), or to the ventromedial PFC (vmPFC) in combination with exposure therapy. METHODS: Volunteers with pathological fear of either enclosed spaces, contamination, public speaking, or anxiety-related bodily sensations were recruited for this randomized, single-blind, sham-controlled trial with four arms: (a) Exposure + TILS_vmPFC (n = 29), (b) Exposure + sham TILS_vmPFC (n = 29), (c) TILS_dlPFC alone (n = 26), or (d) Sham TILS _dlPFC alone (n = 28). Post-treatment assessments occurred immediately following treatment. Follow-up assessments occurred 2 weeks after treatment. RESULTS: A total of 112 participants were randomized [age range: 18-63 years; 96 females (85.71%)]. Significant interactions of Group x Time and Group x Context indicated differential treatment effects on retention (i.e. between time-points, averaged across contexts) and on generalization (i.e. between contexts, averaged across time-points), respectively. Among the monotherapies, TILS_dlPFC outperformed SHAM_dlPFC in the initial context, b = -13.44, 95% CI (-25.73 to -1.15), p = 0.03. Among the combined treatments, differences between EX + TILS_vmPFC and EX + SHAM_vmPFC were non-significant across all contrasts. CONCLUSIONS: TILS to the dlPFC, one of the PFC regions implicated in emotion regulation, resulted in a context-specific benefit as a monotherapy for reducing fear. Contrary to prediction, TILS to the vmPFC, a region implicated in fear extinction memory consolidation, did not enhance exposure therapy outcome.

Authors: Zaizar ED; Papini S; Gonzalez-Lima F; Telch MJ

Psychol Med. 2021 Jul 21:1-10. doi: 10.1017/S0033291721002270.

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