November 6, 2010

Long-term Memories The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

From The Dana Foundation

Editor’s note: Traumatic memories haunt the lives of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and other illnesses. Fortunately, recent research into the changeability of long-term memories may someday develop into treatments for such individuals. But before this can happen, writes Cristina Alberini, Ph.D., of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, researchers must determine just how effectively the fear associated with older memories—especially those involved in PTSD—can be reduced and for how long. Researchers must also address the ethical issues that go hand in hand with modifying memory.

For more than a century, clinicians, psychologists, and biologists have worked to understand the mechanisms underlying the formation and storage of long-term memories. Recently, scientists found that when a stored memory is recalled, it becomes sensitive to disruption for a limited time.1,2 This finding indicates that it might be possible to weaken or even erase memories of traumatic experiences that become uncontrollably intrusive in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This possibility has drawn great interest from scientific and clinical communities, as well as from nonscientists, who became interested in its potential clinical applications; furthermore, it raised ethical concerns.

Many ethical questions and debates about treatments designed to weaken memories may reflect the still poor understanding of how memory recall or reactivation results in memory fragility and the many unknowns surrounding its temporal boundaries. Whereas the study of animal models and healthy humans has provided some knowledge about post-recall memory disruption, data on the use of such disruption to treat PTSD symptoms are still conflicting. The strengthening of memory with the passage of time, the resilience of strong memories to disruption, and the specific aspects of memory that become sensitive to disruption raise questions about the limitations of this approach and warrant more research. Here, we will look at how we form memories of an emotional event and how these memories become fragile after recall. That will help us consider the potential, limitations, and ethics of disrupting memories of emotion.

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