New Study: Overcoming Fear with AI Therapy - Dispatch Weekly

November 28, 2016 - Reading time: 7 minutes

Researchers from the University of Cambridge, UK, have discovered a way to remove memories involving fear from patients’ brains, using artificial intelligence.

AI and brain scanning could be pivotal to tackling phobias and post-traumatic stress disorders in the future.

Aversion Therapy Vs. Decoded Neurofeedback

Aversion therapy is used to help patients expose themselves to their fear, understanding that their phobias are mentally created and not physically dangerous.

Decoded Neurofeedback, by contrast, uses brain scanning to find brain patterns related to fearful memories.

In the study, 17 volunteers were given a quick electric shock when shown a particular computer visual. The pattern that emerged was forgotten when researchers gave the volunteers a reward.

This allowed the researchers to manipulate how the patient felt without talking about the specific fear.

American Fears

1 in 5 adults have a mental health condition in America; that’s over 40 million Americans. This is more than the populations of New York and Florida combined, according to

For a new study by the Chapman University, more than 1,500 people around the US in 2016 were asked about their fears.

The top 10 fears of 2016 were:

The number one fear for Americans: Corruption of government officials
  1. Corruption of government officials (same top fear as 2015) — 60.6%
  2. Terrorist attacks — 41%
  3. Not having enough money for the future — 39.9%
  4. Being a victim of terror — 38.5%
  5. Government restrictions on firearms and ammunition — 38.5%
  6. People I love dying — 38.1%
  7. Economic or financial collapse — 37.5%
  8. Identity theft — 37.1%
  9. People I love becoming seriously ill — 35.9%
  10. The Affordable Health Care Act/”Obamacare” — 35.5%

Fear, Anxiety and Depression: the Huge Costs

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is estimated to affect around 16 million Americans (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], 2013).

According to the World Health Organization, it is the leading cause of disability worldwide (World Health Organization 2012).

Anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, almost one-third of the country’s $148 billion total mental health bill, according to “The Economic Burden of Anxiety Disorders,” a study commissioned by ADAA (The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 60(7), July 1999).

Common mental disorders are increasing worldwide. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety increased by nearly 50%, from 416 million to 615 million, according to the World Health Organisation.

Removing Fear Subconsciously

Photo Credit: Ai Koizumi, Scan of brain showing information associated with a fear memory
Photo Credit: Ai Koizumi,
Scan of brain showing information associated with a fear memory

Ben Seymour from the University of Cambridge said, “When we induced a mild fear memory in the brain, we were able to develop a fast and accurate method of reading it by using AI algorithms.”

“The challenge then was to find a way to reduce or remove the fear memory, without ever consciously evoking it.”

“We realized that even when the volunteers were simply resting, we could see brief moments when the pattern of fluctuating brain activity had partial features of the specific fear memory, even though the volunteers were not consciously aware of it.”

“We decided to give subjects a reward – a small amount of money – every time we picked up these features of the memory.”

Reprogramming the Mind

Dr Ai Koizumi, of the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, Kyoto and Centre of Information and Neural Networks, Osaka, who led the research said:

“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.”

“Remarkably, we could no longer see the typical fear skin-sweating response. Nor could we identify enhanced activity in the amygdala – the brain’s fear center,” she continued. “This meant that we’d been able to reduce the fear memory without the volunteers ever consciously experiencing the fear memory in the process.”

Linking Shock Treatments with Rewards

By linking electric shock treatments with a monetary reward, the scientists aimed to dissipate the fearful memories.

They compared these with the images used with the shock treatments. This helped them to challenge traditional talking therapies that are often long-term and emotionally painful.

If proved successful AI and brain scanning could challenge drug based and talking therapies, modernizing health care for those with phobias and mental illness.

Do you think it is ethical for AI and brain scans to be used to manipulate fearful memories, replacing them with happier ones? Or does this sound too much like mind manipulation, not unlike the treatments in the film ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘?

DW Staff

David Lintott is the Editor-in-Chief, leading our team of talented freelance journalists. He specializes in covering culture, sport, and society. Originally from the decaying seaside town of Eastbourne, he attributes his insightful world-weariness to his roots in this unique setting.