There's Now a Way to Literally Erase Fear From the Brain

eternal sunshine of the spotless mind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind | Focus Features
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind | Focus Features

If Hollywood has taught us anything about experimental brain procedures that eradicate painful memories, it's this: Participants will regret the procedure halfway through and want to keep their memories. Then, everything turns bad and scary, but in the end, they win back their manic pixie dream girl, played by Kate Winslet. At least that's what happens in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which won an Academy Award for best screenplay, so it must be true. Right?

We may be on the brink of finding out. Dr. Ai Koizumi of the Advanced Telecommunicatons Research Institute International, Kyoto and Centre of Information and Neural Networks, Osaka, led a recent study titled "Reconditioning the brain to overcome fear."

What Dr. Koizumi and her team found is that it's possible to overwrite a "fear memory" through the use of artificial intelligence and brain scans. This technology sounds like a dystopian sci-fi movie franchise waiting to happen and a possible fear trigger in itself, so we asked Dr. Koizumi to tell us more about what this means for your brain.

Why it's so hard to get rid of fear in the first place

Traditionally, people with phobias, PTSD, and other fear-related disorders have been treated by exposure therapy. Exposure therapy involves confronting the thing that terrifies you most, again and again, until you learn to deal with it.

For example, if you have a phobia of cockroaches, your first session might involve talking with a counselor about the hairy-legged, glossy brown spawns of Satan. Next, you might sit in the same room as a dead roach (gross). Finally, you'd work up to holding a live one (vomit). The experience can be unpleasant, for obvious reasons.

That's why this new technique -- called decoded neurofeedback, or DecNef -- is so revolutionary. It overwrites subjects' fear memories without requiring them to consciously experience fear or the terrifying object itself. "When referring to fear reduction effect, then yes, our results suggest that it can be achieved without physical presentation (i.e., awareness)," Dr. Koizumi wrote in an email.

In short, you don't have to see a roach for DecNef to work. You don't even have to think about a roach.

How does DecNef work?

To find out if DecNef was actually the OxiClean of the neural world, researchers had to first create a stain (aka a fear memory). They accomplished this by showing 17 subjects images paired with electric shocks.

The study described these shocks as "uncomfortable but tolerable," an experience that sounds much like sharing oxygen with a roach. Over the next three days, researchers observed the subjects' neural activity via a functional MRI (fMRI) and used artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor these patterns.

"The way information is represented in the brain is very complicated, but AI image recognition methods allowed us to identify specific features of the content of that information," explained Dr. Ben Seymour, of the University of Cambridge's Engineering Department, in a summary of the study. "When we induced a mild fear memory in the brain, we were able to develop a fast, accurate method of reading it by using AI algorithms."

Every time the brain "represented" the fear reminders, the AI recognition method picked up on them. At that point, study participants received cold hard cash. Although they knew there was some relationship between what their brain was doing and when they got paid, they weren't told any specifics. And because their "fear reminders" only involved certain portions of the brain -- not enough to trigger conscious awareness or a fear response -- subjects were totally unaware that the seemingly random spurts of cash were helping them rewrite their memories.

The experience activated different parts of the brain than exposure therapy does, which suggests that its mechanisms differ from those methods..

"When trying to extinguish fear memory through exposure to fear memory cues, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex gets involved (although its specific role is still under debate)," Dr. Koizumi said. "In contrast, during decoded neurofeedback, we barely observed involvement of vmPFC. We instead observed an involvement of striatum, which has been implicated in reinforcement learning, potentially contributing to reduction of fear by counter-conditioning."

In plain English, instead of exciting the part of your brain that handles fear and risk, DecNef activates your reward pathways. Which sounds way more fun.

What do these results mean for you?

The effects of the study can't be duplicated at home (unless you inhabit a lair peopled with neuroscientists, artificial intelligence, and fMRI machines… but we can't all live that dream). Right now, researchers aren't even sure the results are permanent, or that DecNef would work on fear memories that weren't created by researchers in a lab.

If the results hold up, though, this could have huge mental health implications, and could impact treatments for anything from PTSD to phobias. Like fear of cockroaches. There's still a lot of work before researchers reach that point.

"Whether the effect was long-term is something we would like to test in the future," Dr. Koizumi said. "I hope more studies can fine-tune this technique. Some researchers are conducting follow-up studies of our study. So please stay tuned."

I mean… how could you not?

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If Missy Wilkinson had a dollar for every time she saw a roach, she might not be terrified of roaches. Follow her on Twitter @missy_wilkinson and Instagram @nowlistenmissy.