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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Mar 27;115(13):3470-3475. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1721572115. Epub 2018 Mar 6.

Towards an unconscious neural reinforcement intervention for common fears.

Author information

1
Department of Decoded Neurofeedback, Computational Neuroscience Laboratories, Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, Kyoto 619-0288, Japan; vincenttd@ucla.edu kawato@atr.jp.
2
Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095.
3
Department of Decoded Neurofeedback, Computational Neuroscience Laboratories, Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, Kyoto 619-0288, Japan.
4
Faculty of Information Science, Nara Institute of Science and Technology, Nara 630-0192, Japan.
5
Brain Research Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095.
6
Department of Psychology, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong.

Abstract

Can "hardwired" physiological fear responses (e.g., for spiders and snakes) be reprogramed unconsciously in the human brain? Currently, exposure therapy is among the most effective treatments for anxiety disorders, but this intervention is subjectively aversive to patients, causing many to drop out of treatment prematurely. Here we introduce a method to bypass the subjective unpleasantness in conscious exposure, by directly pairing monetary reward with unconscious occurrences of decoded representations of naturally feared animals in the brain. To decode physiological fear representations without triggering excessively aversive reactions, we capitalize on recent advancements in functional magnetic resonance imaging decoding techniques, and use a method called hyperalignment to infer the relevant representations of feared animals for a designated participant based on data from other "surrogate" participants. In this way, the procedure completely bypasses the need for a conscious encounter with feared animals. We demonstrate that our method can lead to reliable reductions in physiological fear responses, as measured by skin conductance as well as amygdala hemodynamic activity. Not only do these results raise the intriguing possibility that naturally occurring fear responses can be "reprogrammed" outside of conscious awareness, importantly, they also create the rare opportunity to rigorously test a psychological intervention of this nature in a double-blind, placebo-controlled fashion. This may pave the way for a new approach combining the appealing rationale and proven efficacy of conventional psychotherapy with the rigor and leverage of clinical neuroscience.

KEYWORDS:

neural reinforcement; physiological fear response; real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging

PMID:
29511106
PMCID:
PMC5879705
DOI:
10.1073/pnas.1721572115
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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