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.
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