Fear of heights: cognitive performance and postural control

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Abstract

Introduction

Fear of heights, or acrophobia, is one of the most frequent subtypes of specific phobia frequently associated to depression and other anxiety disorders. Previous evidence suggests a correlation between acrophobia and abnormalities in balance control, particularly involving the use of visual information to keep postural stability. This study investigates the hypotheses that (1) abnormalities in balance control are more frequent in individuals with acrophobia even when not exposed to heights, that (2) acrophobic symptoms are associated to abnormalities in visual perception of movement; and that (3) individuals with acrophobia are more sensitive to balance-cognition interactions.

Method

Thirty-one individuals with specific phobia of heights and thirty one non-phobic controls were compared using dynamic posturography and a manual tracking task.

Results

Acrophobics had poorer performance in both tasks, especially when carried out simultaneously. Previously described interference between posture control and cognitive activity seems to play a major role in these individuals.

Discussion

The presence of physiologic abnormalities is compatible with the hypothesis of a non-associative acquisition of fear of heights, i.e., not associated to previous traumatic events or other learning experiences. Clinically, this preliminary study corroborates the hypothesis that vestibular physical therapy can be particularly useful in treating individuals with fear of heights.