Fear or phobias can produce sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and even lead to panic. Irrational fears, whether spiders or public speaking, subside with the realization that what we're afraid of won't actually harm us. Aversion therapy and drugs help reverse this terror for some, but new research in Nature Human Behavior suggests overcoming our fears can be done in combination with artificial intelligence and brain scan technology.

Phobic people will go to great lengths to avoid their fears, which ultimately affects their normal functioning. Currently, doctors will recommend a type of aversion therapy, which is the concept of overcoming the fear by experiencing it fully, and repeatedly, until the patient becomes averse to it. Previous research has found avoiding the fear reinforces it, while exposure to it in a safe and controlled environment can diminish it.

However, an international team of researchers believe erasing fears from our memory can be done without us being conscious of it.

"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," said Dr. Ben Seymour, study author and part of the University of Cambridge's Engineering Department, in a statement.

The researchers used a new technique called "Decoded Neurofeedback" to read and identify a fear memory. The technique used brain scanning to observe activity in the brain, and identify complex patterns of activity that mimicked a specific fear memory.

To create a fear memory, brief electric shocks were administered to 17 healthy participants when they saw a certain computer image. When a set color appeared on a screen, the participants were zapped, leading them to associate certain images with mild discomfort. The researchers used different colored discs to measure brain activity in the visual cortex, which is the region of the brain that deals with visual information. There were brief moments of fluctuating pattern of brain activity that possessed partial features of the specific fear memory, although the participants were not consciously aware of it.

Once they had the pattern of a fear memory, they attempted to “overwrite” the response by offering the participants a small monetary reward. In other words, the volunteers were told the monetary reward they earned depended on their brain activity, but they weren't told how. This procedure was repeated 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," said Dr. Ai Koizumi, study author and part of the Advanced Telecommunicatons Research Institute International, Kyoto and Centre of Information and Neural Networks, Osaka.

To test whether the brain training was effective, the researchers showed the volunteers pictures previously associated with the electric shocks. Participants no longer displayed the typical fear skin-sweating response, nor could enhanced activity be detected in the amygdala — the brain's fear center. The researchers were able to reduce fear memory without the participants consciously experiencing the fear memory in the process.

The sample size is relatively small, but the researchers hope this technique could be refined to a clinical treatment for patients with PTSD or phobias. First, researchers would need to build a library of the brain information codes for certain pathological fears, such as spiders or clowns, according to Seymour. Then, the patients could undergo regular sessions of Decoded Neurofeedback to gradually remove the fear response these memories trigger.

This treatment could deliver greater benefits than exposure therapies, which some patients avoid, or drugs that can come with undesirable side effects.

Source: Koizumi A, Amano K, Cortese A et al. Fear reduction without fear through reinforcement of neural activity that bypasses conscious exposure. Nature Human Behavior. 2016.