Are We close to Learning to Weaken Fear Memories?

Are We close to Learning to Weaken Fear Memories?

 Jim Windell

             Trauma leaves in its wake fears and worse – sometimes nightmares, anxiety, and even phobias.

            But what if we could weaken – even eliminate – the traumatic memories? What if we could help people essential do away with the lingering memories following an horrific event?

            A new report suggests we may well be on the verge of such a discovery. Published recently in the journal Nature Neuroscience, a report details a study by researchers from the Texas A&M University Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the Institute for Neuroscience.

           Stephen Maren, professor of psychological and brain sciences, pointed out that although exposure therapy may dampen fear responses, "The one major challenge is when you do the extinction procedures, it doesn't erase the original trauma memory." Therefore, the original memory is still there and it can still bubble back up, which, Maren says, is what causes relapse for people who re-experience fear.

           With this in mind, the researchers hoped to answer whether they could isolate a memory and drive fear responses by reactivating it artificially -- and potentially disrupt the original memory itself. To do this, the researchers used a conditioning procedure in which a cue becomes indirectly associated with a fearful event. When the cue is presented later, it indirectly reactivates a memory of the event and increases activity in the hippocampus, a brain area important for memory.

           The study showed that indirectly reactivating a contextual fear memory through re-exposure to the cue can make the memory vulnerable to disruption. In effect, these findings suggest that procedures currently used by clinicians to indirectly reactivate traumatic memories create an opportunity to change or eliminate them.

           Maren, however, said that further research is needed to answer if scientists can produce a permanent loss of the traumatic information.

           To read the original journal article, find it with this reference:

Ressler, R.L., Goode, T.D., Kim, S., Ramanathan, K.R. & Maren, S. (2021). Covert capture and attenuation of a hippocampus-dependent fear memoryNature Neuroscience; DOI: 10.1038/s41593-021-00825-5



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