New ‘brain training’ era for mental illnesses
10:55 AM, March 04, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:17 AM, March 04, 2017

New ‘brain training’ era for mental illnesses

Recent research into the brain is gaining attention, showing that preferences for facial features can be unconsciously changed by manipulating brain activity.

This method also appears capable of erasing memories of traumatic experiences and is expected to aid in the treatment of mental illnesses and in clarifying their causes. However, the safety of the procedure still needs to be investigated.

Subjects learn to ‘like’

Research results showing that preferences for facial features could be changed were published in an international scientific journal in September last year by a team affiliated with Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR) in Kyoto Prefecture.

In the experiment, 24 test subjects were shown photographs of the faces of 400 people and asked to rate how much they liked each one on a scale from one to 10, with one being the least liked and 10 being the most liked. During this time, the brain activity of the subjects was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI (see below). The specific brain patterns associated with each rating were then analyzed by artificial intelligence, and the data was used to train the brain.

Subjects were then shown a circle that would increase in size when their brain activity matched the same patterns as when they saw the faces they rated highly.

They were told to “use their brain to make the circle grow larger on the screen after looking at a picture of a face,” but not told the mechanism behind how to increase the size of the circle. They were also told they would receive money as a reward if the circle increased in size after seeing the picture of the face and given time to think freely.

This process was repeated 180 times each day for three days of training. For the training portion of the experiment, subjects were shown only the faces they rated as moderate.

After the training, subjects were asked to rate the faces again on a scale of one to 10 — the faces previously rated as “moderate” were rated higher than before the training. Some subjects were also able to be trained to dislike faces they had previously rated as moderate. There was no change in the ratings of faces that were not included in the training.

Hope for new treatments

The technology that combines fMRI and AI to influence brain activity is called “Decoded Neurofeedback,” or DecNef, and was developed at ATR. It has also been successfully used to erase fear memories (see below) and change the “level of certainty” of whether an object was seen.

Attention has been focused on the fact that the brain activity of people suffering from depression is different from that of healthy individuals.

Mitsuo Kawato, 63, director of the Brain Information Communication Research Laboratory Group at ATR, said, “We’ve been able to apply the technology to every area of the brain, and have discovered that it’s possible to alter cognitive function and memories.”

One expected practical application of the technology includes treatment for mental illness -- a team consisting of ATR, Kyoto University and other institutions are starting to conduct clinical studies to discover applications for the treatment of depression.

Attention has been focused on the fact that the brain activity of people suffering from depression is different from that of healthy individuals. Three patients underwent training this fiscal year with DecNef  to align their brain activity closer to that of patterns measured in healthy individuals, and an improvement in their depression symptoms was observed.

ATR researcher Takashi Yamada, 42, said, “The data is still sparse, but it can be seen that ‘recurring thoughts’ about bad things that happened in the patients’ past decreased, and the symptoms of depression improved.” He anticipates that “by using this technique we can not only treat illness, but also discover the cause.”

“Some may equate this technology to brainwashing. There are also concerns about the side effects, such as personality changes. We would like to continue our research cautiously, and determine whether the technology is safe to use”

DecNef is still in the research stage of development, and needs further testing to determine its safety. In addition to the involvement of a physician and clinical psychologist, the experiments must also report periodically to the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development, with the agency overseeing the research and deciding whether it is suitable to be continued.

“Some may equate this technology to brainwashing. There are also concerns about the side effects, such as personality changes. We would like to continue our research cautiously, and determine whether the technology is safe to use,” Kawato said.

Defining consciousness

What is consciousness? This question, which has baffled philosophers and scientists alike, might be answered with DecNef. According to Kawato, there are two prominent theories regarding what brain activity generates consciousness, and it should be possible to explore both of them using DecNef.

“I get very excited when I think about how the research will move forward,” Kawato said.

■ Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)

 An fMRI machine is capable of depicting changes in the blood flow in the brain without cutting into the body or exposing it to radiation. Seiji Ogawa, special appointment professor at Tohoku Fukushi University, discovered the principle that made this possible. The volume of blood flow in the brain is a reflection of the degree of its activity and can be used to estimate the level of activity in each area. In the experiment conducted to change facial preferences, the blood flow in an area of the brain that influences feelings and learning called the cingulate cortex was measured. Finding specific patterns in the massive amount of data taken during the experiment is a difficult task for humans, but feasible with AI.

■ Fear memories

 Experiences that cause extreme fear can leave permanent traces in the mind and lead to post traumatic stress disorder. One technique to reduce the impact of the memory is to repeatedly show the person the object of their fear, but this has potential to be a source of stress in itself. A research team, including ATR, used DecNef to conduct a study, and published their results in a journal in November last year, concluding that it was possible to unconsciously erase fearful memories from the minds of test subjects.

Copyright: The Japan News/ Asia News Network

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