Fear No More! Neuroscientists Have Found A Way To Remove Specific Phobias From People’s Brains

Ahmed Bilal
Posted Nov 24, 2016
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If you have some irrational fears and you would like to get rid of those crippling phobias then this is definitely something for you. Neuroscientists have figured out a way to remove some specific fears from patients’ brains (hurray science!) The scientists used a combination of brain scanning technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to complete this daunting task and this could be a life changer for many people with different phobias.

Say adios to your fears, you’re better off without them

The whole process works irrespective of whether the patient is putting in any effort to overcome their fears or not. The process called Decoded Neuro-feedback relies on the identification of brain patterns which reflects the specific fears. These patterns are then overwritten to ensure the eradication of the fear using a reward system. According to the researchers, this technique has the potential to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“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 researcher Ben Seymour from the University of Cambridge in the UK.

“The challenge then was to find a way to reduce or remove the fear memory, without ever consciously evoking it.”

The experiment and its outcome

At the start of the experiment the scientists picked up 17 volunteers and artificially created a ‘fear memory’ in them. This memory was associated with a certain image shown to them with a brief electric shock.

One of the volunteer’s brain scan mapped with AI.

The 17 volunteers were then observed for the next three days and were given a small amount of monetary reward whenever they showed the same brain pattern. The participants were just told that their reward depended upon their brain activity, but it was never explained how. The whole aim was to associate the artificially created pattern with reward rather than something frightening, even when the image wasn’t consciously brought to mind.

“In effect, the features of the memory that were previously tuned to predict the painful shock, were now being reprogrammed to predict something positive instead,” says lead researcher Ai Koizumi from the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International in Kyoto, Japan.

After they were done with this, the real test began. The volunteers were shown the same frightening set of images but the researchers spotted no sign of fear in the volunteers as before. There was also no enhanced activity in the ‘fear centre’ of the brain called amygdala.

“This meant that we’d been able to reduce the fear memory without the volunteers ever consciously experiencing the fear memory in the process,” says Koizumi.

The sample size was small, but it’s still a ray of hope for many

This experiment is contrary to the exposure therapy treatment where people with anxiety disorders are exposed to the root cause of their anxiety in a relatively safe setting. The traditional way of doing this often worked, since it involved the ‘confront your fear’ method to get over them. But this team believes that they can one up that method and patients won’t actually have to confront their fears head on.

“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.”

Although the sample size was very small it’s still a ray of hope for 4-5% of the world’s population with phobias. Do let us know what you think about this in the comments below.

phobia meme

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