Imagine if your fear of spiders, heights or confined spaces vanished, leaving you with neutral feelings instead of a sweat-soaked panic.
A team of neuroscientists said they found a way to recondition the human brain to overcome specific fears. Their approach, if proven in further studies, could lead to new ways of treating patients with phobias or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The international team published their findings Monday in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
About 19 million U.S. adults, or 8.7 percent of the adult population, suffer prominent and persistent fears at the sight of specific objects or in specific situations, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.Â
PTSD, another type of anxiety disorder, affects about 7.7 million U.S. adults and can develop after a person experiences trauma, such as sexual assault or military combat.
The authors of Monday’s study said they wanted to develop alternatives to existing treatments for anxiety. Aversion therapy, for instance, involves exposing patients to their fear with the idea that they’ll learn dark rooms, tall buildings or cramped elevators aren’t harmful after all.
The new approach combines artificial intelligence (AI) and brain scanning technology in a technique called “Decoded Neurofeedback.”
For their experiment, neuroscientists worked with 17 healthy volunteers. Rather than test participants’ existing phobias, the researchers created a new, mild “fear memory” by giving volunteers a brief electrical shock when they saw a certain computer image.
The brain scanner monitored volunteers’ mental activity and was able to spot signs of that specific fear memory. Using AI image recognition methods, researchers said they developed a fast and accurate method to read that fear memory information.
“The challenge then was to find a way to reduce or remove the fear memory, without ever consciously evoking it,” Ben Seymour, a co-author and a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge’s Engineering Department, said in a press release.
Seymour said the team realized that volunteers’ brains still showed signs of that specific fear memory, even when they were resting and not consciously aware of the fear.Â
Since scientists could quickly decode those brain patterns, they gave participants a small amount of money, so that the fear memories would become associated with rewards. Volunteers were told their cash reward reflected their brain activity, but they didn’t know how. The team repeated this procedure over three days.
“In effect, the features of the [fear] memory that were previously tuned to predict the painful shock were now being re-programmed to predict something positive instead,” said Ai Koizumi, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Center of Information and Neural Networks in Osaka, Japan.
At the end of the reward therapy, the neuroscientists showed volunteers the same pictures that were previously associated with the electric shocks. The brain’s fear center, the amygdala, no longer showed any enhanced activity.
“This meant that we’d been able to reduce the fear memory without the volunteers ever consciously experiencing the fear memory in the process,” Koizumi said in the press release.
The study’s authors noted that their experiment was relatively small and said further research was needed to turn this approach into a verified clinical treatment for patients with phobias or PTSD. Still, they said they hoped “Decoded Neurofeedback” could help patients avoid the stress of exposure therapies or the side-effects of drug-based therapies.