A new study finds a promising approach to erasing painful emotional memories. The research may lead to improved treatment for those who suffer from anxiety disorders.

The research, published by the journal Science, found that newly formed emotional memories can be erased in the human brain. Researcher Thomas Agren, a doctoral candidate at the Department of Psychology at Uppsala University in Sweden says, "these findings may be a breakthrough in research on memory and fear...and may lead to improved treatment methods for the millions of people in the world who suffer from anxiety issues like phobias, post-traumatic stress, and panic attacks."

Agren's research, under the direction of professors Mats Fredrikson and Tomas Furmark, has shown that it's possible to alter memories during a process called reconsolidation, which helps the brain cement long-term memory.

The research suggests that by disrupting the reconsolidation process, a memory can be made neutral and no longer elicit fear-based emotions.

Reconsolidation for Memory Erasing

Each time a memory is recalled, there is a brief period where the memory becomes malleable, before it is reformed and stored in the brain, or reconsolidated. That's why some memories get distorted over time. They get reformed each time we think of them.

"We are not remembering what originally happened, but instead, recalling what we remembered the previous time we thought about what happened," explained the authors.

Previous research on rat populations has shown that this period of reconsolidation is the key to altering memories.

In this human study, researchers showed neutral images to study participants while simultaneously giving them an electric shock. This was done to condition the brain to associate the image with fear. When participants were shown the picture without the electrical shock, they still reacted to the image with fear.

The participants were brought back the following day and shown the image again. Then, they were divided into two groups: an experimental group and a control group. The experimental group was immediately shown the same neutral image over and over. A control group was also shown the image repeatedly, but after a delay of six hours.

During both group viewings, researchers used a MR-scanner to monitor each participant's amygdala—a part of the brain where fear-based memories are stored.

By repeatedly showing the image (without delay), the experimental group appeared to have suppressed the fear memory. The results of the MR-scanner supported their findings—the scan showed that traces of the fearful memories faded from the amygdala in the experimental group.

The authors believe that since the experimental group was not able to reconsolidate the fear memory, the fear they had previously connected with the picture dissipated.

Researchers hope the findings can bring a behavior-based option to treat anxiety disorders.  

Leslie Beth Wish, EDD, MSS, reviewed this article.




Fear Can Be Erased from the Brain, Research Shows. ScienceDaily Sept. 20, 2012. Web.

Abstract. Disruption of Reconsolidation Erases a Fear Memory Trace in the Human Amygdala. Thomas Agren, Jonas Engman, Andreas Frick, Johannes Björkstrand, Elna-Marie Larsson, Tomas Furmark, Mats Fredrikson Science 21 September 2012