Spiders, Dogs, and PTSD: A Virtual Treatment for Phobias and Fear

Bret S. Stetka, MD


October 26, 2021

At Wayne State University's Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic (STARC) in Michigan, researchers are developing novel interventions for treating some very ancient phobias hardwired into the human brain. By using augmented reality as means of conducting exposure therapy, STARC researchers — including Shantanu Madaboosi, Rakesh Ramaswamy, and Lana Grasser — and STARC director Arash Javanbakht, MD, have produced compelling evidence that they can free patients of their often debilitating fears of spiders, dogs, and snakes. Yet their work doesn't stop there, with ongoing research into treating anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among first responders and others with high-stress occupations.

Medscape spoke with psychiatrist Javanbakht, whose research on this topic was published yesterday in the November issue of the Annals of Clinical Psychiatry, about the technological advances that have made this work possible; the future of remote-based psychiatry; and his tarantula colleague, Tony.

Dr Javanbakht with his research tarantula, Tony.

Augmenting Exposure Therapy

How did you begin using artificial intelligence as a way of delivering exposure therapy?

Exposure therapy is a very effective treatment for phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and PTSD. But the problem we had is that if someone comes to me and says they're afraid of dogs, snakes, or spiders, I don't have those in my office. Or, if its social phobia, I can't create those scenarios. So, despite being such an effective treatment, it's not utilized as much as it should be.

Several years ago, I saw a TED talk by the CEO of an augmented reality company who happened to be a neuroscientist. I thought the concept was amazing, because it offered a way to overcome those limitations.

Mixed augmented reality allows us to bring all those feared objects to the clinic. I can bring my Labrador to the office for someone who's afraid of dogs, and they can get the exposure to that one dog. But we know good exposure therapy needs to be generalizable, with as many different breeds of dogs as possible, and is context-dependent. If the patient sees a dog in their neighborhood, their fear response may come back. Doing it in a real-life context, and offering as many contexts as possible, makes it more effective.

Augmented reality allows all of these options because you can have as many different types of virtual objects as you want, and the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality is that augmented reality happens in a real-life context. You wear the goggles and you can walk around the environment and track the object, so the context is more realistic.

When did you begin researching augmented reality as a clinical tool?

I became a faculty member here in 2015, right out of my residency training, and I think it was around 2016 or 2017 that we began this work.

I'm very much involved in exposure therapy, utilize it myself, train others, and research how it works and changes the brain. I knew the ins and outs and what would make a better exposure therapy, based on my knowledge of neuroscience.

We spend time thinking about how we can apply these neuroscientific principles in software that can also be easily used by a not very technologically savvy therapist. Because that has been a big barrier when it comes to technology and human use in medicine.

Initially, we had a company create the software for us, but we've since brought all the programming inside.

The cool thing about these augmented reality devices is that they have excellent surface mapping. As soon as the person wears the goggles, it automatically maps the surfaces and provides a 3D view of the patient's environment on the therapist's computer. Say you're treating a patient with a fear of spiders. Through dropdown menus, the therapist can choose what type of spider, its color and size, where it should be placed, and the motion. I can choose to move the spider from 6 feet away on the floor to the walls to the ceiling.

Virtual Phobias, Real Fear

A big question for a lot of people was if the spiders are virtual, will they be scary, because it has to be realistic enough to create a fear response for the therapy to work. We use a couple of wires that you can put on a person's finger and hook them up to a tablet or a cell phone. This provides an online measure of a person's autonomic sympathetic response.

Like a lie detector test?

Exactly. We put that on their fingers and exposed them to a real-life tarantula and to our virtual tarantulas, and the fear response was no different. That means these do create an objective fear reaction in the body.

We also had people who said, "I know this is not real. I won't be scared." And when we started the therapy, it was with a tiny spider 5 meters away from them, and they'd lift their legs off the floor.

With the treatment, we'd come to one room and start with a very little spider, far from them. Then gradually we move them up to bigger, more diverse types of spiders, which are moving around. The patient comes near and tries to touch them.

Then at some point, I'd put a spiderweb on the door, put a few spiders on that, open the door, and have the patient walk through it. They kept walking through this spiderweb.

When they were desensitized to these spiders in this context — and as I said, context is important — we'd go to another room. This was darker, more like a basement, and we'd continue the same thing. That would actually take much less time because they already had desensitized a lot.

In our field, sense of control is very important, especially for when a patient goes home. So at the end, I'd leave the room and talk to the patient via a baby monitor. The patient was surrounded by 20 tarantulas, without the prompt moving around the environment.

Now that they're desensitized to my virtual spiders, the question is, how would that apply to a real spider? So, we had a real live tarantula, whose name was Tony Stark, because we're the STARC lab. We'd put Tony at the end of a long hallway before the treatment and see how close the patients could get to him.

Everybody who got the treatment was able to touch the tank containing the tarantula. It was only one treatment session; nobody's was longer than 1 hour, and the average treatment time was 38 minutes.

That's pretty effective.

It's pretty good compared with other studies. And I believe this is because of all the components I mentioned: being able to use your real environment; combining it with the real tarantula; the variety of the types of the feared objects; and, of course, giving the patient a sense of autonomy at the end.

Then we had to see how prolonged the effects are. We had them come in 1 week and 1 month after the treatment. I'd remind them of the principles of good exposure therapy and ask them to keep practicing at home between the sessions, looking at pictures and videos. But we never tested who did or did not do it.

After 1 week and 1 month, the effects were either the same or better. A larger number of people at 1 month were able to touch the tarantula than right after treatment.

Treating PTSD in First Responders

Did you start with spiders and dogs because those are common fears?

We started with spiders because that worked with the initial goal of creating a prototype. Spiders' behavior is simple enough for the programming, which takes a lot of time. Another reason for choosing spiders was that we had a lot of other studies of real and virtual reality exposure therapy to compare against.

I think another reason for our success is that when you do real exposure therapy, you have just one scared tarantula in the corner of their tank and they don't listen to you. But my spiders listen to me and do exactly what I tell them.

After our initial success, we obtained more funds to expand it to other phobias. The cool thing is that we don't need separate software for different phobias. You can choose dogs or snakes, add it to the person's environment, and decide their behaviors.

We just started a clinical trial using dogs, and another group in Turkey is running a clinical trial with dogs. Eastern Michigan University is working with spiders. And a clinic at the University of Nebraska Medical Center is going to start using them in real-world clinics, not for research.

We have another project whose goal is helping reduce the impact of trauma and also treating PTSD in first responders, who are exposed to a lot of horrible things. Rates of PTSD are around 20%-30% among cops, firefighters, and EMS personnel.

They commonly find it very painful being in crowds because the fight-or-flight instinct in the brain is constantly screening for any sign of threat in their environment. We're working on them walking into an empty room wearing the goggles, and then their therapist can scale the stimulus up and down.

There'll be two people in front of you talking to each other, and then another group comes in, and people get louder. People can look at you and talk to you. There's kids running, Fourth of July fireworks, and other things that might bother someone who's been involved in gun- or explosion-related traumas. You gradually scale up when the person is next to their therapist.

Another thing we're doing is related to cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). If a young person dies in a CPR situation, that is really painful and traumatic. So, for exposure therapy to that, we're creating a difficult CPR scenario when that person may die. The responder wears the goggles and basically watches a group of people doing CPR while standing next to a therapist who can help them navigate it and then scale it off.

Another goal is combining this with telemedicine, where the person can do it in their real-life environment. Imagine a person with military trauma. You can put them back in the barracks, connected with their psychiatrists via telemedicine. Then we would put humans in military fatigues near them and have them interact with them to feel comfortable with that situation.

What else is next for you and your group?

The next biggest challenge that we're tackling is PTSD, because of course creating human encounter scenarios is much more complicated than spiders and dogs. We're in the midst of developing this so we can basically bring it to people's homes.

We've been working with some military personnel to see if we can basically give a device to a veteran with PTSD, so they can go home and practice on their own.

There's another possibility for training. Let's take the example of a police force, which can have a lot of difficulties and mistakes because of lack of exposure and training. They can wear these goggles, get fully geared up, and be placed in encounters with people of different backgrounds, of different severity, with people who could be severely mentally ill or present different challenges for the officers.

Those situations can teach them a lot. I'm the creator of this thing, but even I'm often surprised by how realistic this technology can be. I find myself interacting with avatars the same way I would if they were real humans. I actually had one of my colleagues, when we started launching the programming with the dogs, immediately jump back. It's just like the animal brain reacts to them.

Last question: Do you actually interact with Tony, the tarantula?

Oh, Tony is my friend. Unfortunately, he's not with our lab at this moment. He's on a sabbatical at Eastern Michigan University for their clinical trials. But yes, I've held him. He's very friendly.

For more on Dr Javanbakht's exposure therapy, click here.

Follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.