Deleting fears from the brain means you might never need to face them

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A new approach may make removing fears from the brain a more pain-free affair(Credit: SIphotography/Depositphotos)

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Conventional wisdom suggest that facing your fears is a good way to overcome them, indeed various forms of therapy for fear-related conditions are based on this premise. But by using a combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and neuroscience, an international team of researchers have come up with a way to eliminate specific fears from the brain without the subject actually needing to confront them, an approach that could offer more comfortable ways of treating phobias and post-traumatic stress disorders.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18 percent of US adults are diagnosed with a fear or anxiety disorder each year. A typical approach to treating such fear-related conditions is what is known as exposure therapy, where subjects are made to face their fears in a safe environment, conditioning the brain to embrace the low level or entire absence of any real danger. So somebody with a fear of flying may be shown photo after photo of airplanes, or somebody with arachnophobia may be shown images of spiders. The idea is that through repetition, the anxious response to these cues is gradually erased from the brain.

But the approach does have its flaws. By nature, this type of therapy is not exactly pleasant, and its effects are not permanent so some patients will experience relapses down the road. This has lead scientists to explore different ways to enhance the effectiveness of treatment, or take different approaches altogether.

The new technique developed by neuroscientists at the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with US and Japanese researchers, falls into the latter category. They claim that their approach enables fear memories to be removed from the brain without them ever needing to be triggered in the patient. Here's how it works.

It revolves around a new method of identifying fear memories in the brain that the team has dubbed "Decoded Neurofeedback." The technique uses image-recognition methods powered by artificial intelligence to monitor and recognize complex brain patterns representing particular fear memories. This was put to the test with 17 healthy volunteers, who were shown computer images and given short electric shocks at the same time in order to form fear memories in their brains.

"When we induced a mild fear memory in the brain, we were able to develop a fast and accurate method of reading it by using AI algorithms," explains Dr Ben Seymour from the University of Cambridge. "The challenge then was to find a way to reduce or remove the fear memory, without ever consciously evoking it."

Armed with their new, fast-acting pattern recognition software, the team noticed that even when the subjects were resting, traces of the shock-induced fear memory patterns would still make fleeting appearances. And because the subjects weren't even consciously aware of them, these flashes represented the perfect opportunity to undermine what they meant.

So each time a pattern was detected, the patients were handed small sums of cash. They were told that the amount of money they were earning was linked to their brain activity, but they weren't told exactly how, and this process was repeated over three days. By the end, it seemed that the brains had been reconfigured to associate those fear memories with something much more positive. The team reinforced this by then showing the subjects the computer images originally linked to the shocks.

"Remarkably, we could no longer see the typical fear skin-sweating response," says Dr Ai Koizumi, from the Advanced Telecommunicatons Research Institute International, Kyoto. "Nor could we identify enhanced activity in the amygdala – the brain's fear centre. This meant that we'd been able to reduce the fear memory without the volunteers ever consciously experiencing the fear memory in the process."

The researchers note that 17 is a pretty small sample size, but the promising results of the initial study have them hopeful that with further development, the technique could evolve into a clinical treatment for fear-related disorders.

"To apply this to patients, we need to build a library of the brain information codes for the various things that people might have a pathological fear of, say, spiders," says Seymour. "Then, in principle, patients could have regular sessions of Decoded Neurofeedback to gradually remove the fear response these memories trigger."

The team's research was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

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