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Texas scientists discover a way to alter and erase post-traumatic memories

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Scientists believe they have developed a method to safely retrieve traumatic memories and potentially disrupt them, thereby reducing their power to evoke fear responses in PTSD patients.

The research findings, conducted by a group of experts from Texas A&M University, suggest that the procedures commonly used by physicians to indirectly reactivate traumatic episodes in patients’ minds could offer “a window through which those memories can be modified or even erased completely,” informs the institution.

Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be asked in therapy sessions, for example, to recall specific external stimuli, such as flashes of light or sounds, from the triggering memory as trauma cues in therapy.

The idea behind this method is to provoke the memory without inflicting any additional suffering on the patient, in order to attenuate the fear responses through exposure.

“The main challenge is that when extinction procedures are carried out, the memory of the original trauma is not erased. It is always there and can reappear, which is what causes relapse in people who experience fear again”, says Stephen Maren, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the university.

Using a technique known as backward conditioning procedure, the researchers think that it may be possible to isolate a memory through indirect association. By attaching the triggering memory to an indirect cue, which can then be used out of context, it may now be possible to reduce the overall fear response in the patient through more indirect exposure, while destabilizing the original memory itself through repeated decontextualization.

Research showed that reactivating a traumatic memory through re-exposure to this indirect signal can make it vulnerable to disruption. The scientists now hope to deepen their study to discover if it is possible to produce a permanent loss of traumatic information through this technique.

Research published April 1 in the journal Nature Neuroscience could help develop additional techniques and treatments to completely alter memories that cause distress.

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