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Scientists reveal how subconscious brain training can cure phobias

The stress-free way to beat fear: Scientists reveal how subconscious brain training can cure phobias

  • People were trained to associate a visual cure with a mild electric shock
  • This created a memory in their brain with a unique signature of activity
  • But the researchers were able to coax people into subconsciously overwriting these memories over time, offering hope for clinical therapy 

Whether it is a phobia of spiders or a traumatic event in the past, the effects of fear can reverberate through a person’s life.

But with the right training we can rid ourselves of them, according to a study.

Researchers have found a method for tricking the brain into letting go of specific fears, which they claim could lead to new treatments for phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

By combining functional brain imaging with artificial intelligence, researchers have been able to zero in on memories related to fear and retrain them. Pictured is a scan of a brain showing information associated with a fear memory

By combining functional brain imaging with artificial intelligence, researchers have been able to zero in on memories related to fear and retrain them. Pictured is a scan of a brain showing information associated with a fear memory

For people suffering from phobias, a common course of treatment is aversion therapy, bringing someone into contact with their fear.

In the case of spiders, a person could be gradually introduced to the arachnids through photos, images and eventually the real thing, learning that their fear is far greater than any actual risk a spider poses.

This course of treatment is not for everyone however, with many opting out of facing their phobia head on.

Taking a different approach, an international team, including researchers at the University of Cambridge, was able to zero in on the memory of a specific fear using a new technique involving brain scans and artificial intelligence (AI).

In order to retrain people with fear memories, researchers combined functional MRI scans with artificial intelligence, helping them to target a specific memory and enable people to overwrite the response

In order to retrain people with fear memories, researchers combined functional MRI scans with artificial intelligence, helping them to target a specific memory and enable people to overwrite the response

Researchers were able to coax people into subconsciously overwriting these memories over time, offering hope for clinical therapy for PTSD and phobias (stock image)

Researchers were able to coax people into subconsciously overwriting these memories over time, offering hope for clinical therapy for PTSD and phobias (stock image)

In an experiment, they planted the seed of fear in the brains of 17 healthy participants by training them to associate specific visual cues with mild electric shocks.

At the heart of the approach was Pavlovian conditioning – the same process by which dogs were trained to salivate when they heard a ringing bell.

DECODED NEUROFEEDBACK (DECNEF): HOW IT WORKS

In order to retrain people with fear memories, researchers combined functional MRI scans with artificial intelligence.

In an initial session, volunteers watched a screen and when a certain image flashed, they received a mild electric shock.

Through this conditioning, they learned to associate a red coloured disc with a negative outcome, so creating an aversive memory.

The resulting brain activity was analysed by an AI algorithm, which picked up on the signature of aversive response.

After the initial sessions, volunteers were subtly trained to associate a reward with the negative stimulus, without being made consciously aware.

Over time, the researches showed that the brain activity associated with the aversive response died down, indicating they had been trained to 'overwrite' the memory.

When a set colour appeared on a screen the volunteers were zapped, resulting in them linking certain images with mild discomfort and creating a ‘fear’ memory, detected using brain imaging.

Different coloured discs were used, with red and green easier to spot on the scans due to signature activity in the visual cortex – the large region of the brain which deals with visual information.

By using AI algorithms, the team was able to spot different activity patterns from the scans.

Once they had the pattern of a fear memory, they attempted to ‘overwrite’ the response, by offering their guinea pigs a monetary reward.

Dr Ben Seymour, a researcher at the University of Cambridge and one of the study’s authors, said: ‘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.’

Dr Seymour added: ‘We realised that even when the volunteers were simply resting, we could see brief moments when the pattern of fluctuating brain activity had partial features of the specific fear memory, even though the volunteers weren't consciously aware of it.

‘Because we could decode these brain patterns quickly, we decided to give subjects a reward - a small amount of money - every time we picked up these features of the memory.’  

Rather than rewarding people for consciously overcoming the fear memory, like in aversion therapy, people were rewarded for subtly overriding their response unconsciously over time.

Writing in a paper published in the new journal Nature Human Behaviour, the researchers explain: ‘Overall, the fear reduction effect achieved…appears robust.’

They add: ‘Our current findings may eventually benefit clinical treatments for fear-related disorders.’ 

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