A pill that gives cowards courage could be in the pipeline.
Scientists have pinpointed an area of the brain that is vital in overcoming fear.
A drug that activates these brain cells could help people face their phobias, from spiders to heights to public speaking.
Researchers looked at how the brain reacts to ophidiophobia – fear of snakes.
Volunteers with and without a fear of snakes had their brains scanned as they watched either a cuddly toy bear or a live snake move past them on a conveyer belt.
A touch of a button brought the bear or snake closer – or moved them away.
A region called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, which helps us process emotions, lit up when those who were scared of snakes exhibited bravery by moving the snake closer to them.
And the bigger their fear of snakes, the greater the activity in the region, the journal Neuron reports.
Researcher Dr Yadin Dudai, of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, said the results had shone a light on the basis of courage.
They also ‘point to the possibility of manipulating subgenual anterior cingulate cortex activity in therapeutic intervention in disorders involving a failure to overcome fear’.
Previous research has shown that the stress hormone cortisol can make the difference between being a hero or a coward.
Those who rise to the challenge do not experience the cortisol rush of those who fall to pieces when the going gets tough.
When U.S. psychiatrists subjected soldiers to concentration camp simulations and other extremely stressful situations they found that those who remained calm made less cortisol.
They also made more neuropeptide Y, a compound that counteracts the effects of cortisol.
The Israeli study has caught the eye of the U.S. military, who believe it could be used to create the perfect soldier.
Using the right cocktail of supplements, steroids and mind exercises, it might be possible to turn run-of-the-mill recruits into heroes.
An estimated 16million Britons suffer from phobias.