A twin-pronged research project into childhood phobias is underway at the Griffith Health Institute.

Researchers at the Gold Coast and in Brisbane are seeking the participation of 140 children, aged between seven and 17, for a study which aims to develop new and effective treatments of children’s deepest fears.

“If your child is afraid of the dark or animals or insects or the sound of thunder in the night, we would invite parents to contact us,” Dr Lara Farrell, who is leading the Gold Coast team, said.

Children taking part will get a full assessment, one session of treatment and be monitored until the end of 2013 by experts at the School of Applied Psychology.

The groups on the Gold Coast and at Mt Gravatt will carry out linked but different research techniques.

An antibiotic, traditionally used to cure tuberculosis, is an integral part of the Gold Coast study.

The drug, called D-Cycloserine, will be administered at one-tenth of the traditional dose and requires only a single dose immediately before a session of exposure therapy.

“The drug has been discovered to improve the brain’s learning receptors,” Dr Farrell says.

“The drug does not treat the phobia but readies the brain for enhanced learning.

“It focuses the child’s brain to learn that what they once feared is not scary at all. It’s still the exposure therapy which does the curing, not the drug.”

Griffith University’s Associate Professor Allison Waters is leading the project and believes the study, if successful, could lead to a major breakthrough in helping children and their worried parents overcome debilitating fears.

She leads a team of researchers at Mt Gravatt focused on a computer-based attention-focusing program to enhance a single session of exposure therapy by helping children control which stimuli in their environment they give their attention to.

“Childhood phobias can lead to life-long anxiety and other problems if left untreated,” Dr Waters says.

Approximately 80 percent of adult phobias develop in childhood, and about 12 percent of all children develop some kind of phobia.

The research project also includes an international angle through the involvement of Professor Tom Ollendick from the Child Study Center at Virginia Tech University in the United States.

An adjunct professor at the Griffith Health Institute’s Behavioural Basis of Health Research Centre, Professor Ollendick is one of the world’s foremost experts on childhood phobias and anxiety disorders.

He has developed a program which can treat many phobias in a single session of exposure therapy, but recognises only 60-70 per cent of children respond to any treatment.

“If you can control your fear you can control your anxiety. A phobia is a learned fear, if you can learn it you can unlearn it,” said Professor Ollendick.

For more information, please contact the research team on 555 28317.