ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS Atlanta) – For some, the thought of going to the dentist evokes anxiety and panic.

Now, researchers think they are closer to discovering an answer as to why this occurs by scanning people’s brains while playing them sounds of dental drills and suction instruments.

According to a report presented at a meeting for the Society for Neuroscience, researchers in Japan found that those who were terrified of dental visits showed marked differences in their brain responses  than those who were more relaxed at the idea.

Japanese researcher and dentist Hiroyuki Karibe said figuring out how the brain reacts to the sounds could help scientists find different ways to make dental patients more relaxed.

“As a paediatric dentist, I’ve seen many patients since 1987, and from my clinical experience, I found that the sound of drilling can evoke anxiety in dental patients,” Karibe explained the South China Morning Post

Karibe asked 21 women and 12 men aged 19 to 49 to complete a survey measuring how much they feared a trip to the dentist.  He then split the participants up into high- and low-fear groups according to their scores on the survey.

Next participants had their brains scanned in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI).  During the scans, a series of sounds including screeching dental drills and rasping suction tools were played.

“All of the participants were isolated in the fMRI room when they listened to the dental sounds, so we couldn’t see if they responded visibly or audibly to the dental sounds, but we could recognise their responses from their brain activity,” Karibe said to the paper.

Those in the low-fear group were not anxious about going to the dentist.  Karibe explained parts of the brain responded more when they heard dental sounds than when they heard neutral sounds.

Participants who were anxious about going to the dentist responded completely differently. An intense response was seen in a region called the left caudate nucleus, which may play a role in remembering the sounds of the dental instruments.

“We believe the findings can be applied to assess the effectiveness of interventions such as cognitive behaviour therapy for patients who have a strong fear of dental treatment,” Karibe said the South China Morning Post.

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