November 14, 2012

Memory Formation

When Our Brain Gets it Wrong

New research from Uppsala University in Sweden suggests that it may be possible to alter or even erase emotional memories before they become permanently embedded into our brains.

The time between learning information and remembering information involves separate processes. To remember something that we have learned, the information necessarily becomes temporarily destabilized before it is consolidated into a fixed memory. By interrupting this process of consolidation, researchers postulated that they would be able to arrest destabilized information before it became a memory.

The implications of being able to remove fear from memories hold promise for future psychological treatments of anxiety, phobias, post-traumatic stress, and panic attacks, according to one of the authors of the study.

According to Janice Wood, who reported on the study for Psych Central, “We are not remembering what originally happened, but rather what we remembered the last time we thought about what happened.”

In the experiment, subjects were shown a neutral image that was accompanied by an electric shock. When shown a second time, the image elicited fear in the subjects. To interrupt the reconsolidation process, researchers showed the image repeatedly without the shock, and were able to observe via a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan that the image no longer registered fear in the subjects’ amygdala in the temporal lobe of the brain—the part that normally stores frightening memories. Rather than remembering the fear, therefore, subjects were able to “re-remember” the image as neutral.

The implications of being able to remove fear from memories hold promise for future psychological treatments of anxiety, phobias, post-traumatic stress, and panic attacks, according to one of the authors of the study.

What it also suggests, however, is that memory is hardly a concrete snapshot of a moment in time. Instead, it is a highly variable process involving experience, emotion, and brain circuitry. This variability proves problematic in matters of eyewitness testimony and identification. Crimes create moments of highly charged emotion, and witnesses can recall seeing people or actions that never actually occurred.

According to the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted prisoners, eyewitness misidentification contributes to almost 75% of wrongful convictions that are later overturned by DNA testing.

Whether they are psychological researchers, lawyers, activists, or accused criminals, everyone can agree on one thing: memory is far from an exact science.

by Kate Marcal

http://psychcentral.com/news/2012/09/21/can-you-simply-erase-fear-from-the-brain/44932.html