Summary: Researchers have developed a new technique they believe could help people build confidence and overcome fears.
UCLA-led research offers promise for treating anxiety, eating disorders.
A new technique of analyzing brain patterns appears to help people overcome fear and build self-confidence.
The approach, developed by a UCLA-led team of neuroscientists, is described in two new papers, published in the journals Nature Communications and Nature Human Behaviour.
Their method could have implications for treating people with depression, dementia and anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, said Hakwan Lau, a UCLA associate professor of psychology and the senior author of both studies. It could also play a role in improving leadership training for executives and managers.
In the Nature Human Behaviour study, the researchers showed that they could reduce the brain’s manifestation of fear using a procedure called decoded neurofeedback, which involves identifying complex patterns of brain activity linked to a specific memory, and then giving feedback to the subject — for example, in the form of a reward — based on their brain activity.
The researchers tested the technique on 17 undergraduate and graduate students in Japan. Participants were seated in a functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, scanner and shown patterns of vertical lines in four colors — red, green, blue and yellow. The blue and yellow images were always shown without shocks, but the red and green patterns were often accompanied by a small electrical shock administered to their feet.
As a result, the subjects’ brain patterns began to register fear for the red and green images. But the scientists learned that they could use decoded neurofeedback to lessen the subjects’ fear of the red pattern. They did this by giving the subjects a small cash reward — the equivalent of about 10 cents — each time they spontaneously thought about the red lines (but gave no rewards for thinking about the green lines), which the scientists could determine in real time based on their brain activity.
The following day, researchers tested whether the participants still had a fear response to the vertical lines. The red pattern, which had been frightening because it was paired with shocks, became less so because it now was paired with a positive outcome. With the reward as part of the equation, researchers found that participants perspired much less than when they had seen the red lines previously, and their brain’s fear signal, centered in the amygdala, was significantly reduced.
“After just three days of training, we saw a significant reduction of fear,” Lau said. “We changed the association of the ‘fear object’ from negative to positive.”
Participants were not told what they had to do to earn the money — only that the reward was based on their brain activity and that they should try to earn as much money as possible. And each time participants were told they had won money, their brains demonstrated more of the same pattern that had just won them the cash reward.
Although participants tried to guess which of their thoughts were triggering the rewards — some guessed humming music or thinking about a girlfriend, for example — none actually figured out how they earned the money or recognized that the researchers had effectively reduced their fear of the red lines.
“Their brain activity was completely unconscious,” Lau said. “That makes sense; a lot of our brain activity is unconscious.”
Participants did still register fear on their fMRI scans when they saw the green pattern because, without the financial rewards, they still primarily associated the color with shocks.
The findings could help improve upon standard behavioral therapy, in which a person who is afraid of a certain object is exposed to photos of that object, or even the object itself — which can be frightening enough that many people cannot complete treatment. Lau said using “unconscious fear reduction,” like in the experiment, could be more effective in many cases.
In the Nature Communications study, which was published today, Lau and his colleagues used decoded neurofeedback to increase people’s confidence levels.
Ten participants were seated in an fMRI scanner and asked to watch a computer screen with hundreds of dots moving in different directions.
Participants were asked whether the majority of dots were moving to the left or the right, and how confident they were in their responses. That initial feedback gave the researchers a chance to see how high confidence and low confidence were represented in brain patterns.
Participants then were shown dots moving in random motion and told to think about anything — and that certain thoughts would earn them cash rewards. Every time the brain pattern looked like it was representing high confidence, the participant received a reward of up to the equivalent of 10 cents; subjects received smaller rewards if their brain activity indicated less confidence.
Next, the researchers showed the students the images from the first phase of the experiment — with numerous dots primarily moving in one direction or the other. The scientists found that although students weren’t any better at guessing the primary direction of the dots’ motion, they had become more confident in their guesses.
By studying brain patterns, Lau said, neuroscientists can decode people’s thoughts about food, love, money and many other concepts, which eventually could help them design treatments for eating disorders, gambling addiction and more. The researchers next will determine whether the techniques described in the papers can be used to help patients with real phobias.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” he said.
Co-authors of both studies include Mitsuo Kawato, professor and director of the ATR Brain Information Communication Research Laboratory Group in Kyoto, Japan; Ai Koizumi, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar; Ben Seymour, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge; and Aurelio Cortese, a doctoral student in Kawato’s laboratory.
Funding: Lau’s research is funded mainly by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (grant R01NS088628).
Source: Stuart Wolpert – UCLA
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Multivoxel neurofeedback selectively modulates confidence without changing perceptual performance” by Aurelio Cortese, Kaoru Amano, Ai Koizumi, Mitsuo Kawato & Hakwan Lau in Nature Communications. Published online December 15 2016 doi:10.1038/ncomms13669
Full open access research for “Fear reduction without fear through reinforcement of neural activity that bypasses conscious exposure” by Ai Koizumi, Kaoru Amano, Aurelio Cortese, Kazuhisa Shibata, Wako Yoshida, Ben Seymour, Mitsuo Kawato & Hakwan Lau in Nature Human Behavior. Published online November 21 2016 doi:10.1038/s41562-016-0006
Multivoxel neurofeedback selectively modulates confidence without changing perceptual performance
A central controversy in metacognition studies concerns whether subjective confidence directly reflects the reliability of perceptual or cognitive processes, as suggested by normative models based on the assumption that neural computations are generally optimal. This view enjoys popularity in the computational and animal literatures, but it has also been suggested that confidence may depend on a late-stage estimation dissociable from perceptual processes. Yet, at least in humans, experimental tools have lacked the power to resolve these issues convincingly. Here, we overcome this difficulty by using the recently developed method of decoded neurofeedback (DecNef) to systematically manipulate multivoxel correlates of confidence in a frontoparietal network. Here we report that bi-directional changes in confidence do not affect perceptual accuracy. Further psychophysical analyses rule out accounts based on simple shifts in reporting strategy. Our results provide clear neuroscientific evidence for the systematic dissociation between confidence and perceptual performance, and thereby challenge current theoretical thinking.
“Multivoxel neurofeedback selectively modulates confidence without changing perceptual performance” by Aurelio Cortese, Kaoru Amano, Ai Koizumi, Mitsuo Kawato & Hakwan Lau in Nature Communications. Published online December 15 2016 doi:10.1038/ncomms13669
Fear reduction without fear through reinforcement of neural activity that bypasses conscious exposure
Fear conditioning is a fundamentally important and preserved process across species. In humans it is linked to fear-related disorders such as phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Fear memories can be reduced by counter-conditioning, in which fear conditioned stimuli (CS+s) are repeatedly reinforced with reward5 or with novel non-threatening stimuli. However, this procedure involves explicit presentations of CS+s, which is itself aversive before fear is successfully reduced. This aversiveness may be a problem when trying to translate such experimental paradigms into clinical settings. It also raises the fundamental question as to whether explicit presentations of feared objects is necessary for fear reduction. Although learning without explicit stimulus presentation has been previously demonstrated whether fear can be reduced while avoiding explicit exposure to CS+s remains largely unknown. One recently developed approach employs an implicit method to induce learning by reinforcing stimulus-specific neural representations using real-time decoding of multivariate functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) signals in the absence of stimulus presentation; that is, pairing rewards with the occurrences of multi-voxel brain activity patterns matching a specific stimulus (decoded fMRI neurofeedback (DecNef)). It has been shown that participants exhibit perceptual learning for a specific visual stimulus feature through DecNef, without being given any strategy for the induction of specific neural representations, and without awareness of the content of reinforced neural representations13. Here we examined whether a similar approach could be applied to counter-conditioning of fear. We show that we can reduce fear towards CS+s by pairing rewards with the activation patterns in visual cortex representing a CS+, while participants remain unaware of the content and purpose of the procedure. This procedure may be an initial step towards novel treatments for fear-related disorders such as phobia and PTSD, via unconscious processing.
“Fear reduction without fear through reinforcement of neural activity that bypasses conscious exposure” by Ai Koizumi, Kaoru Amano, Aurelio Cortese, Kazuhisa Shibata, Wako Yoshida, Ben Seymour, Mitsuo Kawato & Hakwan Lau in Nature Human Behavior. Published online November 21 2016 doi:10.1038/s41562-016-0006