Candyce Dene Tart: Clinical Psychology
Candyce Dene Tart earned a nursing degree at the University of South Carolina, but her career took an unexpected turn. While she was working at a hospital, Candyce developed an interest in the anxiety she saw in many patients. She came to SMU six years ago to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology. Under the guidance of Professor Jasper Smits, she is currently conducting a clinical trial research project that has National Institute of Mental Health Funding and that holds the potential for very practical, real-life-application.
Cognitive behavior therapy, which involves discussion with a therapist followed by exposure to a feared stimulus, is the current “gold-standard” for treatment of phobias. The phobic patient, having experienced the feared stimulus and come through unharmed, feels less afraid of that particular fear-inducer in the future. Candyce’s study hypothesizes that patients who are treated with a drug called D-cycloserine following a successful cognitive behavior therapy session will retain the positive effects of that session better.
D-cycloserine is an antibiotic that has been used in the treatment of tuberculosis for more than 50 years. In recent years, researchers have found that D-cycloserine can be effective in treating certain psychiatric conditions, working by affecting a receptor in the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emotions.
In 2004, a group of researchers published a study saying the patients who were given D-cycloserine an hour before cognitive therapy sessions for acrophobia, or fear of heights, got better faster. The phenomenon is called facilitated fear extinction.
Candyce is repeating their study with a twist: Her subjects receive the drug after their therapy sessions. If her subjects show enhanced learning, it will make for an improved therapeutic procedure: Patients won’t have to wait for a period after taking the medicine before beginning therapy.
Candyce’s subjects are treated using a virtual-reality machine that exposes them to virtual heights. The amount of D-cycloserine administered to her subjects is tiny, one-tenth the quantity used in treatment of tuberculosis, and consequently carries little risk.
“If they had a really good session on fear of heights, the medicine could cement that learning,” Candyce says.