New therapy for phobias

28 November 2016

Interview with

Ben Seymour, University of Cambridge

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Do you have a phobia? If so, you're in good company because about 1 in 20 of usFear are affected by an irrational fear of something. Normally, to combat phobias, you have to repeatedly expose yourself, in a safe environment, to the thing that scares you to "unlearn" your fear response. But many people find this so distressing that they give up - or are too frightened to sign up in the first place. Now scientists from the University of Cambridge have found a way train your brain to overcome a phobia unconsciously. Ben Seymour told Naked Scientist Graihagh Jackson about his new technique...

Ben - Anxiety disorders, phobias, post traumatic stress disorder are much commoner than maybe we realise - they affect a large number of people.

Graihagh - How many people do suffer with this sort of condition?

Ben - I think one in fourteen represents the whole scope of anxiety disorders.

Graihagh - Do you know why we have these fears in the first place? I have an irrational fear of velvet and I know it's irrational because velvet, I know, is never going to hurt me but it doesn't stop me from having huge heeby jeebies and the shivers everytime I see it anywhere near me!

Ben - Yes. The list of phobias is long and diverse and there are some remarkable things people are afraid of. More common things are things like spiders and snakes. Velvet - I have not idea where that actually comes from but maybe there's something in your past which relates to that that I don't know about.

Graihagh - So how would you normally treat a fear?

Ben - Usually therapies are orientated around confronting the fear in some respects.

Graihagh - In my case, that would would mean stroking velvet repeatedly, which is hugely distressing. Thankfully though, Ben has found another way to treat phobias and it doesn't involve facing my fears.

Ben - Imagine you're actually a subject in our experiment. On the first day we would show you a bunch of pictures like colourful circles and we'd get you to lie in a brain scanner and look at these different images. Over the past few years, we and others have developed ways of reading content in complex patterns of brain activity. So, for instance, for visual images it's now possible to decode with quite considerable specificity the content of what someone is looking at at any particular time.

Graihagh - And this real time neuroimaging has been made possible by an artificially intelligent algorithm, which can quickly tease apart which pattern in the brain corresponds to seeing a coloured dot. So, if Ben shows you a red dot your brain might be like this... a blue dot like this... and a yellow dot like this. You get the picture. Next, every time you see that yellow dot, he give you a small electric shock. Ben is conditioning you to fear that yellow dot.

Ben - And if we look in your brain we'd see a response in the fear nucleus of the brain, the amygdala.

Graihagh - Amazingly, even if there is no yellow dot to be seen, every now and then that I'm scared of the yellow dot pattern resurfaces in your brain except you're totally unaware of thinking about it.

Ben - This effectively happens subconsciously or unconsciously. And every time we see the brain enter into a state of similarity with the fear cue, we give the subject a reward - a little bit of money. What that does is attach a bit of positive value to some information in the brain which was previously associated with something aversive. So, in effect, it chips away at the aversiveness of that fear memory.

Graihagh - Do this enough and, in theory, it means no touching velvet to overcome my fear. You're ridding someone of a phobia unconsciously and, therefore, it's stress free unlike traditional therapies of today.

Ben - We've reduced the fear memory without the person experiencing any fear at al. That is something which is not a feature of any other procedure that we know of.

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