Queensland researchers are tackling children’s crippling phobias by exposing them to the very things they fear the most.
It is called intense exposure therapy and it is curing childhood anxiety disorders in less than a day.
The studies at the Menzies Health Institute Queensland at Griffith University’s Gold Coast campus are world firsts.
It uses a twin-pronged approach – play therapy plus the use of a drug once used to fight tuberculosis called D-Cycloserine.
Scientists now know this antibiotic also affects certain receptors in the amygdala portion of the brain – the area that is responsible for “unlearning” fear responses.
Anxiety expert Dr Lara Farrell said scientists were using the drug in a novel way to improve psychotherapy.
“This would be a world-first treatment in terms of using D-Cycloserine in a large trial of children with phobias,” she said.
The intense exposure therapy had cured about seven out of 10 children.
Dr Farrell said the tuberculosis drug helped accelerate the process and it had no side effects.
“Kids who are taking D-Cycloserine get better faster,” she said.
OCD Busters trial having success
The treatment is now being trialled on children with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), like eight-year-old Ella Mulligan, who had been battling OCD for two years.
Mother Kelly Mulligan said her OCD was triggered at her daughter’s local medical centre.
“Ella’s doctor or nurse told her when she was chewing on her hair that if she swallows it she might get a hair ball,” Ms Mulligan said.
“That triggered a panic attack, which triggered a lot of other issues – fear of swallowing, fear of germs.
“She would check her food before she ate thinking it would have something in it that would hurt her.
“She would not touch things if she dropped them on the ground.”
It has been really draining, but now we just see a happy little girl.
Ella’s nickname for her OCD was “Spike”.
One of the things she would be frightened of was using public toilets and having to touch door handles and toilet seats.
“If Spike was right … I would touch this to open the door and I would be getting lots of germs right now that would make me sick … make me develop a serious disease,” she said.
The trial is called OCD Busters and is for children aged seven to 17.
Dr Farrell said they gave children one-tenth of a dose of D-Cycloserine before each session over three days.
With the drug speeding up the response to the exposure therapy, Ella was forced to confront her fears.
Researchers took Ella into places she feared were contaminated, like public toilets and hospitals.
When nothing bad happened, she started to combat her OCD, one compulsion at a time.
“[Ella is] happy and able to have fun in the face of these objects that previously were incredibly frightening, that they would avoid at all cost.” Dr Farrell said.
“It has been really draining, but now we just see a happy little girl,” Ms Mulligan said.
Play therapy a ‘breakthrough trial’
Play therapy is also being used to help younger children overcome phobias, with Griffith University researcher Helen Kershaw saying it was a breakthrough trial.
“The reason why it is a world first is that traditionally one session exposure treatment has been used for older children, but it has been very difficult to engage younger children,” she said.
We now regularly go on puppy play dates – now if [Rosie] sees a dog she runs towards it to pat it, which is a complete contrast from before.
“We have been able to use play therapy with one session [of] exposure therapy, enabling youngsters to feel safe.”
Mother Kate Johns signed up her four-year-old daughter Rosie for the trial as she was scared of dogs.
“So fearful that she would run away – she [Rosie] might scream, cry or panic,” Ms Johns said.
But after just one hour of playing with toy dogs, and two hours confronting the real thing, she overcame her fear.
“We now regularly go on puppy play dates,” Ms Johns said.
“Now if she sees a dog she runs towards it to pat it, which is a complete contrast from before.”
The psychology team at Griffith University has helped nearly 300 children battle their fears in multiple trials.
The most common phobias were animal phobias or phobias of the dark, but some children were frightened of water, vomiting, blood, injections and even storms. One was even traumatised by hand dryers.
For more information, parents can contact OCD Busters on: (07) 5678 8317 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.