At least 1 in 14 people has a fear-related psychological disorder, the most common being, in this order, arachnophobia (fear of spiders), ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), and acrophobia (fear of heights). The most common form of treatment is called aversion therapy and involves putting patients face to face with their irrational fears so they might realize there’s nothing to worry about. Rational or irrational, few people actually decide to confront their phobias because these are inherently unpleasant and very stressful.
Scientists from the University of Cambridge, UK, have come up with a novel form of fear reconditioning, though. It involves spotting brain patterns related to fear responses using artificial intelligence. It’s then only a matter of rewiring the experience by associating it with something pleasant, like the smell of freshly baked pie. Just kidding, in this case, they used cash because everybody loves the sweet touch of a powerful currency in their hands. ‘Hmm, free cash. Why was I afraid of a crawling critter a billionth my body size, again?”
The method developed at Cambridge and Osaka, Japan, is called Decoded Neurofeedback. Despite the huge task of decoding the complexities of neural signals inside the brain, the team managed to write an algorithm that makes sense of all the noise and clutter.
For the experiment, 17 healthy volunteers were given a brief, but unpleasant electric shock when a certain computer image came to their attention. This experience eventually created neural patterns that triggered a fear response whenever the image was shown again. The participants didn’t consciously become afraid, but the brain scan suggests the image scared the bejesus out of the subconscious.
“The way information is represented in the brain is very complicated, but the use of artificial intelligence (AI) image recognition methods now allow us to identify aspects of the content of that information. 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. The challenge then was to find a way to reduce or remove the fear memory, without ever consciously evoking it,” said Dr. Ben Seymour, of the University of Cambridge’s Engineering Department.
To reduce or remove the fearful memory out of their neural drives, the researchers tried to counter-act the response by associating the experience with something pleasant instead. Whenever the artificial intelligence algorithms detected the subconscious fear patterns in a participant, a cash reward was immediately handed out.
The process was repeated over three days. The volunteers were aware of the reason why they were given free money but reported they weren’t aware of the neural patterns, which means they couldn’t game the system.
“In effect, the features of the memory that were previously tuned to predict the painful shock, were now being re-programmed to predict something positive instead,” said Dr Ai Koizumi, of the Advanced Telecommunicatons Research Institute International, Kyoto and Centre of Information and Neural Networks, Osaka.
At the end of the trial, the researchers tested their work by showing the same fear-inducing pictures to the study participants. Remarkably, not only was the neural pattern gone, the researchers couldn’t detect feat-sweating, a typical response to fear. The brain’s fear center, the amygdala, was also in normal range.
“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.
Despite the small sample size, the scientists are confident this method can help relieve patients of some of their most troubling fears, be them spiders or the sound of bombshells.
“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” adds Dr Seymour. “Then, in principle, patients could have regular sessions of Decoded Neurofeedback to gradually remove the fear response these memories trigger.”
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.