There may be new hope for people with severe phobias, thanks to a system devised by scientists in Japan and the US. It's based around using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to actually see when a patient is envisioning the thing that they fear.

The experimental technology was developed by researchers from the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, Japan, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

To start, fMRI scans were performed on the brains of 30 psychologically-healthy test subjects, while they viewed images of a variety of animals. This allowed the scientists to establish which unique patterns of brain activity corresponded to perceiving images of which creatures. Even though there were physiological differences between all the participants, common identifiable patterns still emerged.

Next, fMRIs were performed on the brains of 17 people who had a strong fear of at least two of the animals – spiders and snakes, for example. A computer was analyzing their scans in real time, and every time that it recognized the brain signature for the feared creature (even if the person was picturing one on a subconscious level), the participant was given a small monetary reward. In this way, they came to have a positive association with the animals, with tests showing that they were subsequently less afraid of them.

Traditionally, phobias are treated through increased exposure to the feared item. This can be quite unpleasant for the patient, however, to the extent that many people either avoid treatment or cease it. It is for this reason that the scientists initially obtained the brain signatures by analyzing non-phobic individuals, so that people with the phobias could be spared the ordeal of looking at pictures of the animals they feared.

Ultimately, it is hoped that the new technique could be used as a less-traumatic method of treating phobias, along with other psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.