Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fearful memories can be erased from the brain

Our brain controls all parts of our body, but it is also very busy with storing all kinds of information. Memory is a very important aspect, but it can also impair the way we function. Some memories of traumatic experiences can haunt people for years to come or permanently change our personality. It would come in handy if we were able to modify our memory: wipe out the bad, and keep the good. A recent study shows that erasing memories from the brain may indeed be possible. Scientists from the Uppsala University demonstrated a way to wipe newly formed fearful associations.

Short term
In their experiments, the scientists induced fearful memories in a number of participants by giving them an electric shock while displaying a 'neutral' picture. By doing this, the participants automatically associated being showed the picture with an electric shock, obviously inducing memories of fear. The experiments were repeated long enough in order to store the required fearful memory in the long-term memory. After that, the scientists tried to find a way to get rid of the fearful memories that the picture induces, and they found a way by looking at how the memory works.

In order to form a long-term memory, it is necessary to consolidate the recorded events, which means that the brain needs to recall the original memory. In turn, this allows the brain to re-establish the original association of fear, something the scientists want to get rid of. In order to induce memory consolidation, something called reconsolidation is necessary. During this process, the original memory is being recalled, and this works by temporarily destabilising the required proteins for memory formation. By disrupting the reconsolidation process, the 'renewed' storage of memories can be altered, and that is exactly what the scientists did.

After the initial association training, the participants were shown the feared picture again, but this time without the associated electric shock. In one group, the participants were allowed to finish the reconsolidation process, while the scientists tried to disrupt it in a second group. The latter was performed by flashing the picture again before the reconsolidation process was finished. By showing the picture over and over without the brain being 'ready' with the required reconsolidation, the scientists proved to be able to remove the fearful association: by using an MRI scanner, the 'fear part' was found to be gone after the disruption process. Fear is induced by the amygdala, and this brain area was found to be no longer involved after disrupting the reconsolidation.

The present study is not very useful in practice, but it does show that there are ways to remove emotional memories from the brain. This could be helpful for a variety of traumatic events. If psychologists would be able to get patients to recall their fearful memories, disrupting the process associated with the consolidation of this memory could help to alleviate psychological traumas. More studies are required in order to find out how psychologists could turn this knowledge into a tool usable for daily practice.


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