Forgetting yourself: deleting memories may cure PTSD | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Forgetting yourself: deleting memories may cure PTSD

As the number of PTSD cases rise, the need for a newer, more effective treatment increases. But is memory modification the way to go? Tatiana Zhelezniakova investigates

Nostalgia is such a warm word. It brings to mind a sweet homesickness, a Marcel Proust’s madeleine-type longing for childhood. It is certainly a far cry from its 1678 medical meaning, signifying Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. PTSD has been described for aeons, with references scattered from Ancient Greece to Henry IV’s madness in Shakespeare’s works. Terminology, however, remained evasive for years, wandering through 80+ terms such as ‘railway spine’, ‘shell shock’, ‘soldier’s heart’ and many more. The current term started being more widely used in the 1970s, finally being entered into the DSM-III (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 1980.

Many problems arise from drugs such as antidepressants and hypnotics, largely due to inefficacy and/or addiction
Over 24 million people in the US (8% of the population) are currently suffering from PTSD, with the disorder arising in up to 30% of people exposed to a stressful event or a situation of extreme threat, most commonly in military personnel. It causes re-experience of the trauma with extreme distress and physiological reactions. Even though we have become over-casual with the term, PTSD is anything but trivial, causing a range of emotional symptoms such as numbing, depression, and aggression, and it can often lead to misuse of alcohol and drugs. While treatable, symptoms can persist, especially with delayed treatment. Currently, pharmacological interventions are not recommended, and cognitive behavioural therapy takes centre stage. Many problems arise from drugs such as antidepressants and hypnotics, largely due to inefficacy and/or addiction. It is clear then, that a new treatment is overdue.

Considering the root of all the symptoms is the traumatic experience itself, it makes sense that researchers turned to the idea of amending or eliminating the original memories. This avenue has been explored over the last few years from many angles including modification of malleable memory reconsolidation – a process which occurs to reinforce negative connotations of memories. However, previous research focused mainly on altering blocking neuronal communication, rather than the culprit neurones themselves.

The ultimate aim would be to develop a drug to target and inactivate the ‘highlighted’ neurones, to remove the traumatic component of the formed memory
A team of scientists at the University of Toronto have managed to target and excise memories founded on fear in mice, through identification of the neuronal networks used in their initial formation. It seems the fear-coded memories are associated with particular neurones, which were induced to overproduce a protein for identification purposes using optogenetics. The ultimate aim would be to develop a drug to target and inactivate the ‘highlighted’ neurones, to remove the traumatic component of the formed memory. This process also has the potential to treat addiction by erasing the positive emotional components of memories associated with taking narcotics.

The worry is the ethics of opening the floodgates to memory modification. Technique knowledge and control will have to be rigorous to prevent misuse of the treatment. No matter how much someone will want to forget a bad break up, or the loss of a loved one, this is an incredibly dangerous road to go down. However, if responsibly used, this could be the answer we’ve been looking for to truly help PTSD patients recover for good.

4th year Medical Student Intercalating in Clinical Sciences (@tvzhel)



Published

7th March 2017 at 1:44 pm



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