Brain and Body

New Neuroscience Technique Deletes Specific Fears From the Brain

November 22, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

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Using artificial intelligence and brain scanning technology, neuroscientists were able to override specific fear memories by reconditioning the brain.

In a discovery that could have major implications for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias, a team of neuroscientists from the University of Cambridge, Japan and the USA have developed a new technique for removing specific fear memories from the brain.

The new method, called ‘Decoded Neurofeedback,’ works by reading and identifying fears in the brain by scanning brain activity for complex patterns that resemble specific fear memories.

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The team conducted an experiment with 17 healthy volunteers who agreed to receive brief electric shocks in the name of science. Fear memories were created by sending off those shocks when the volunteers saw a certain computer image.

Then, once the pattern of the fear memory was detected, the researchers over-wrote the memory by giving the subjects a reward — in this case, a small amount of money.

“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 study author Dr. Ben Seymour, of the University of Cambridge's Engineering Department, in a press release. “The challenge then was to find a way to reduce or remove the fear memory, without ever consciously evoking it."

Seymour says that even when the study subjects were simply resting, the researchers could see short moments of brain activity patterns with features of the specific fear memory. The volunteers weren’t consciously aware of this, however.

By connecting these subtle patterns of fear memories with a reward, the researchers hoped to gradually and unconsciously override the fears, so the team repeated this procedure over three days.

"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,” lead researcher Dr. Ai Koizumi, from the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, Kyoto, said in the release.

"Remarkably, we could no longer see the typical fear skin-sweating response. Nor could we identify enhanced activity in the amygdala -- the brain's fear centre," she continued. "This meant that we'd been able to reduce the fear memory without the volunteers ever consciously experiencing the fear memory in the process."

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Notably, the study’s volunteer sample was small, so the results need to be reproduced in larger study sizes to determine their validity.

However, the researchers hope this technique might one day be developed into a clinical treatment option for patients with PTSD or phobias. ‘Decoded Neurofeedback’ could offer a drug-free way for patients to overcome their fears, as well as avoiding the stress associated with exposure therapies.

The research appears in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

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