University of Texas at Austin

Friday, April 3, 2009

Fear not the trip from lab to clinic

Marie Monfils

Marie Monfils

Marie Monfils studies a basic emotion, fear, in a basic model system, rodents.

But the assistant professor of psychology hopes her research will lead to effective therapies for complex phobias and anxiety disorders that affect people.

“To me that’s a big deal,” she said. “I’m always cautious in saying what I do has direct translational relevance, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

The “it” she referred to is her paper published April 2 in Science Express. She reported that a fear response memory can be altered into a more benign memory by isolating the conditioned stimulus that induces the response and then applying extinction treatment. For more, see the press release, and paper.

I asked her if the treatment demonstrated in her paper could be used to treat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in humans.

“I see PTSD as being a very complex disorder and fear conditioning is so simple,” Monfils said. “Yes is the short answer. But a lot of work is going to have to be done in order for basic research to meet the needs of what’s required in the clinic. It’s going to require a lot of collaborative work.”

Getting from the simple to the complex is the research continuum from lab to clinic.

“We start at a very simple point, we get something interesting,” she said her of work with rats and the fear response. “Now that we’ve isolated something that works we can complicate things just a little bit further and see if our paradigm still holds up. Where it doesn’t, we refine it until it does work.”

The process takes time, but new avenues of research open along the way.

Monfils said she has collaborators who are working with humans and a fear-conditioning model similar to what she’s using with rats. Those collaborators are Daniela Schiller and Liz Phelps, both at New York University where Monfils was a post-doctoral researcher.

The outcome of that work will help inform her research.

“We want to see if we can bridge that gap this way before we can translate this into actual clinical populations of people who have either phobias or PTSD,” she said.

Monfils said she enjoys telling clinicians about the work she’s doing and learning about their experiences in treating people.

“I feel I’m just starting to interact in this way, but I think that down the road it’s something that I want to spend more energy doing.”

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