New Research Shows How Fearful Memories Can Be Erased

By Monica Wilson on September 27, 2012

In a groundbreaking study published in the journal Science, researchers from the Uppsala University explored the possibility of eliminating newly formed emotional memories in the human brain, particularly the sense of fear.

Fear is a vital, natural response of the brain to potential physical or emotional danger. Without fear, we could hardly protect ourselves from legitimate threats. But more often, some people tend to fear things and situations that are way too far from life-or-death. This leads to certain mental and behavioural disorders such as trauma, anxiety and phobia.

Fears can be erased

Thomas Ågren, a doctoral student at the Department of Psychology in Uppsala University has shown that it is possible to wipe out newly formed emotional memories from the human brain. According to his research, the brain creates a lasting long-term memory in a process called consolidation that takes place with the formation of proteins. When a person remembers something, the memory becomes unstable for a moment and is revived by another consolidation process. This means humans don’t actually remember the event that has taken place, rather the memory of what they thought has happened.

Being totally dependent on the consolidation process, Ågren suggests that the content of the memory can be affected by disrupting how it is consolidated. 

In his experiment, he showed a neutral picture to the study participants and at the same time administered an electric shock to them. The application of the electric shock was intended to elicit sense of fear in the subjects as they view the picture.

To activate the fear memory, the picture was show to the participants without accompanying electric shock. In the experimental group, Ågren and his team disrupted the consolidation process by repeatedly showing the pictures while in the control group, the consolidation process was completed first before the picture was repeatedly shown to the subjects.

What did they find out?

In the experimental group, the fear that was associated with the picture disappeared. Instead of identifying the memory as a fearful one, the subjects’ brains identified it as a neutral memory. The researchers used an MR-scanner to look at the brain structure and noticed that the traces of the fear memory have also disappeared from the amygdala – the part of the brain that normally stores them.

According to the researchers, their findings could be a breakthrough for the research of memory and fear. They hope that it may lead to the development of better treatment methods for various mental health problems such as panic attacks, anxiety issues and post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

Source of this article:

Erasing Memories, Science

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