It might be nice to forget about the parts of our past that make us cringe: the horrible ex, that awful week at work, the things that you don’t want to admit you lived through.
But there’s a serious side to the wishful thinking: With suicide rates among war veterans double and triple that of the general population, researchers are looking for ways to combat more serious mental health issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder.
A recent report out of Johns Hopkins University (published in Science magazine) shows that it may be possible to erase traumatic memories entirely.
Some types of behavioral therapy, like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), can help patients target and eliminate the distress associated with trauma -- but the memory can return because it hasn’t actually been erased.
This new research focuses on removing certain proteins that form in brain’s fear center, which could eliminate the memory completely. Richard L. Huganir, professor and chair of neuroscience at the Hopkins School of Medicine and a co-author of the report, told The Baltimore Sun that protein-eliminating drugs could “enhance behavioral therapy for such conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder,” indicating that it could be useful for dealing with things that are much more serious than that Freshman year faux pas you’d like to forget.
Researchers have tested the protein theory on mice, and they think the process would be the same in humans. After using electrical shocks to condition the mice to fear a sound, they noticed that calcium-permeable proteins were created in the amygdala of the mice’s brains and lasted for a day or two. The proteins mediate signals traveling in the brain; by eliminating them, scientists think they could eliminate the memory that triggered them.
But people are far more complex than mice. Children’s brains can sometimes rewire themselves to work around -- or even work without -- malfunctioning areas. While some memories can be painful, we need them in order to learn from our mistakes. And our memories are fallible: What if it’s just a realistic dream?
What about recovered memories and false memory syndrome? And since one traumatic memory can often trigger others, when you’re erasing, where do you draw the line?