HARMLESS: Wolfgang Miltner at the Institute for Psychology of Friedrich Schiller University in Jena with Karla, the bird spider. Just the sight of Karla drives some people into a panic attack, making her an ideal partner in Miltner’s research on phobias.
By Andreas Hummel
Karla stretches out her long, hairy legs but apart from that sits quite still. The tarantula, around the size of the hand she is sitting on, has lived for 20 years at Germany’s Jena University dedicating her life to science.
But the reason for her long stay is not so flattering. She was chosen by psychologist Wolfgang Miltner because many people are terrified at the sight of her, some even going so far as to have panic attacks.
That makes her an ideal partner in his research on phobias and how they can be treated.
When people think of animals and research they often think of scientific experiments on mice, rats and rabbits. In Germany around 3 million vertebrates are killed every year in such experiments, including in Jena.
But scientists there are also using animals to help with other forms of scientific research, without hurting them in the process.
It’s not clear whether Karla is male or female, but that doesn’t matter. What’s interesting to the researchers is what happens in a person’s brain when they see her.
According to Miltner, spiders and snakes are perfect for this kind of research because they’re not linked to illnesses such as depression like other phobias such as social anxiety.
“The great thing is she’s amazingly lethargic,” says Miltner, referring to Karla. “Not like jumping spiders.” And she’s not at all dangerous.
He used to work with a snake, “a beautiful Brazilian colubrid,” he says. But she grew to over a metre long and her behaviour was more difficult to control in the institute than that of a spider.
Miltner digs out some graphics and pictures of the brain on his computer. “Here you can see a big difference between people with and without a phobia, just by looking at this picture,” he says.
People with phobias don’t just react with a faster heart beat and skin resistance, their brains also react differently.
Zoologist Martin Fischer also works with animals. In his case though its dogs.
He sets them on running machines and, using high-speed cameras and X-ray videos, tries to unravel the secret of their movement.
“In the past ten years we’ve examined around 400 dogs,” says Fischer. Soon he’s to put five Belgian Shepherds from the local police force in Saxony on the running machine.
Out of the data he’s produced a book on the basic principles of how dogs move.
His research showed that different breeds, from Mastiffs to Chihuahuas move in extremely similar ways.
The researchers look in more and more depth at each question. Using the sequence of motions and the amount of power used by the dogs, they can work out the torque, a measure of the turning force on an object, in the joints.
Or they can work out what influence the position of the legs has on each breed.
It’s important to Fischer that his work is purely research, even if the results are interesting to vets and breeders. For vets, for example, the data can be useful in understanding how to treat lameness.
Fischer’s institute doesn’t just work with dogs. Several years ago a sloth called Mats became infamous because he refused to get going in front of the camera.
He was just too lazy for research and had to be given to a zoo.
Unlike Karla, the dogs don’t live at the university. Fischer says they’ve never had problems finding enough animals.
Some dogs travel from far away to take part in the research. His own dog was one of the few which refused to co-operate on the running machine and simply sat down.
“He felt that I was walking differently to normal,” says Fischer with a smile. “My own dog can read my every movement, every uncertainty. You can never do studies with your own dog.”
Miltner also gets inquiries from far and wide, not from spider owners but from people who have spider phobias.
“Altogether we think 12 to 14 per cent of people are at least a little afraid of spiders.” To overcome a real phobia, talking therapy isn’t enough, Miltner says, you need to be directly confronted with your fear.
Karla has also been used for therapy. “The goal is that afterwards the person can allow Karla to crawl around on their hands for 20 to 25 minutes and that they can catch 10 house spiders in an otherwise completely empty room.
If the phobia has been conquered that will show in the body’s and the brain’s reactions.
“The heart beat normalises after therapy and the electrical activity triggered in the brain gets better, though it doesn’t go away completely,” says Miltner.
“For someone who’s suffered a spider phobia for 20 years, the spider will remain an exceptional stimulus even after therapy.”
But the overreaction of the brain’s fear centre, the amygdala, will now be controlled by other parts of the brain.
Karla, who appears little aware of the effect she has on people, has been at the institute for almost as long as Miltner. What will happen when he retires? “Karla will probably be given to a pet shop, like the snake was,” says the professor — he has no intention of taking her home to his cats. —DPA