Space & Innovation

A.I. Can Help Your Brain Conquer Fear

Researchers used artificial intelligence to monitor brain activity and help individuals associate positive feelings with fearful thoughts.

What if paralyzing fears could be wiped away unconsciously? No drugs, no exposure therapy, just a few mild electrical shocks?

If that sounds like familiar science fiction, well, an international team of neuroscientists just pulled this off. Their technique, published this week in Nature Human Behavior, combines brain scanning and artificial intelligence to essentially rewrite the brain, removing specific fear memories without the person even realizing that it's happening.

Normally we're limited to treating phobias and PTSD with approaches that have significant downsides. Drugs can have side effects. Other therapies that expose a person to the source of their fear source in order to confront it can be incredibly stressful and even reinforce that fear.

Instead, a team from Japan lead by Ai Koizumi of ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories and his colleagues in the United Kingdom and the United States came up with a more subtle alternative. They took 17 healthy volunteers and then created fear memories by showing each of them specific abstract digital images accompanied by a very mild electrical shock. Brain scans revealed participants' activity.

Once those new fear memories were established, the team used artificial intelligence to effectively pick up those patterns in brain scans. Special algorithms quickly spotted the fear, even when the person wasn't doing anything.

WATCH VIDEO: How Will Artificial Intelligence Change Our Lives?

After that, the researchers switched gears. Ditching the shock-related images, they told participants to use any mental strategy they wanted to increase the diameter of a digital disc shown on a monitor. Each time the volunteers successfully enlarged the disc, they would earn a monetary award.

What the volunteers didn't realize was that the disc's size wasn't influenced by any particular mental strategy. Instead, the disc grew when the researchers' artificial intelligence-driven system detected brain patterns showing the person had thoughts about the fearsome abstract image. Volunteers told the team in a post-study survey that they didn't figure out the connection. Over the course of three days - and without the person even knowing - the original fear got rewritten.

"The features of the memory that were previously tuned to predict the painful shock were now being reprogrammed to predict something positive instead," researcher Ai Koizumi from the Center for Information and Neural Networks in Osaka, Japan, said in a public statement about the technique.

RELATED: Stephen Hawking Wants to Prevent AI From Killing Us All

To test whether the whole thing worked, the team had the participants look at the images that were initially tied to shocks. The typical skin-sweating responses didn't happen and their brains' fear centers didn't light up, according to Koizumi. "[W]e'd been able to reduce the fear memory without the volunteers ever consciously experiencing the fear memory in the process," she noted.

Fear responses can obviously be a good thing, alerting us to real danger, but then there's fear that completely cripples. It's still early days yet for this new subtle AI-based technique, and the sample size was also quite small. However, the neuroscientists hope their research will eventually lead to better clinical treatments for fear-related disorders. No new trauma necessary.