What do you fear?
Do you fear height? or snakes? or driving?
Most of us have some amount of fear for one thing or another.
And how amazing would it be if we can cure all of your painful memories?
Treating phobias commonly involves patients being exposed to the objects, animals or situations they fear the most. A fear of cars, born from a car crash, may be tackled by exposure to vehicles, for example, or people with arachnophobia can beat it by handling spiders.
The process involves remembering, and then mentally dealing with, the initial trauma but this can be a difficult and painful experience. AI may soon be able to help.
“It would be nice if there was some way we could do this without people ever having to confront it – either unconsciously or subconsciously,” Ben Seymour, a neuroscientist
Using a combination of real-time brain imaging through MRI scans, artificial intelligence, and rewards, the University of Cambridge doctor has created a way to remove specific fearful memories from the brain. And the technique could be developed to treat individual fears.
“We have shown you can reduce or remove the fear memory unconsciously using a combination of brain scanning and AI,” Seymour explained.During the research, published in Nature Human Behaviour, Seymour created a fear memory in a small study of 17 volunteers. The team put the volunteers inside an MRI scanner and when they were shown one specific image were given an electric shock, creating a small fear every time they saw that image.
By looking at real-time brain scans, taken when those in the study were experiencing the induced fear, the Cambridge academics were able to identify enhanced activity in the brain’s amygdala – which controls fear.
“You can look in the brain and tell whether someone is looking at a certain colour, or you can tell if a person is looking at a visual thing with a certain orientation,” Seymour said. “You can essentially ‘brain read’ the content of the information that is being held in the brain.”
Artificial intelligence developed by the team could then be used to see how the brain was being stimulated when it was about to experience fear. In particular, the AI was taught to recognize patterns.
“Every time we see a pattern of activity that is similar to the fear triggering stimulus we give a really big reward,” Seymour said. Essentially, the team trained the brain not to sense fear by overriding it, and used the method over three days on those involved with the study. “Every time it happens you attach a bit of positive value to something that was previously associated with fear.”
To test the method, and act as a control during the test, the academics created two fear memories on each person: one memory was targeted and the other was left in its original state. When the people involved in the study were shown the images after being rewarded, responses (skin sweating and advanced amygdala activity) were not seen within the MRI images.
“Our current findings may eventually benefit clinical treatments for fear-related disorders,” the Nature paper concludes. However, a larger and clinical study would be needed before it could be used on individuals and more work has to be completed before a general system could be made.
“We need to basically build a decoding system for the sort of things people would be afraid of”, Seymour explains. “Ideally you would never show them any snakes at all. You would have some kind of generalisable [brain] pattern of snake-like brain activity. For instance, you could get from other people who weren’t afraid of snakes.”