Changes in Brain Activation through Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy with Exposure to Virtual Reality: A Neuroimaging Study of Specific Phobia

J Clin Med. 2021 Aug 9;10(16):3505. doi: 10.3390/jcm10163505.


Background: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) with exposure is the treatment of choice for specific phobia. Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) has shown benefits for the treatment and prevention of the return of fear in specific phobias by addressing the therapeutic limitations of exposure to real images.

Method: Thirty-one participants with specific phobias to small animals were included: 14 were treated with CBT + VRET (intervention group), and 17 were treated with CBT + exposure to real images (active control group). Participants' scores in anxiety and phobia levels were measured at baseline, post-treatment, and 3-month follow-up, and brain activation was measured through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) baseline and post-treatment.

Results: Both groups showed a significant decrease in anxiety and phobia scores after the therapy and were maintained until follow-up. There were no significant differences between both groups. Overall, fMRI tests showed a significant decrease in brain activity after treatment in some structures (e.g., prefrontal and frontal cortex) and other structures (e.g., precuneus) showed an increasing activity after therapy. However, structures such as the amygdala remained active in both groups.

Conclusions: The efficacy of CBT + VRET was observed in the significant decrease in anxiety responses. However, the results of brain activity observed suggest that there was still a fear response in the brain, despite the significant decrease in subjective anxiety levels.

Keywords: cognitive-behavioral therapy; magnetic resonance imaging; specific phobia; virtual reality.