Is it possible to erase traumatic memories from the brain?

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Is it possible to erase traumatic memories from the brain?

There has been no news of Ulysses for years. He could have died in the Trojan War. His son, Telemachus, visits Menelaus and his wife, Helena, in search of information about his father. There, he participates in a banquet at which Menelaus recalls the exploits of the king of Ithaca.

At that moment, the guests fall into a deep sadness at the memory of him. But Helena orders the servants to serve nepenthesthe drink of oblivion.

“Whoever takes this drink will calm all his ills and will be incapable of feeling sadness, as it makes him forget painful memories.”

Behold, happiness returns to those present there.

This is how Homer narrates the episode in Book IV of Odyssey. But is it so easy to forget a traumatic memory? Is there any scientific evidence to prove this?

Why this ease of remembering what is bad?

Our memory holds many of the things that happen to us during the day, but most of it ends up being forgotten.

However, it is easy for us to keep bad memories, although it is not a free process: our nervous system needs to modify certain neural circuits, with the consequent synthesis of proteins and expenditure of cellular energy.

It’s curious: all this effort to keep a memory that will certainly leave us psychological consequences and, in the worst case, will cause us post-traumatic stress disorder. Why?

Part of the explanation is based on the fact that these negative experiences are strongly associated with emotions. And our brain sorts and stores memories based on their usefulness, considering that those linked to emotions are useful for our survival.

If we get too scared when crossing a dangerous area of ​​the city, the brain stores it so we don’t do it again.

The situation is complicated when the experience is really traumatic. In this case, our thinking organ tends to hide these experiences, but stores them without processing. As a quick defense mechanism, it’s fine.

The problem arises when, for whatever reason, bad memories reappear. Then the damage can be very great because they are experiences that were archived “raw”.

Light and sound to eliminate traumatic experiences

Neuroscience seems to have found some pieces of the puzzle that can help us. Even the smallest factor could play a big role in determining whether to keep or delete a memory.

For example, light, something so common that affects everyone, including flies (Droshopila melanogaster), who are able to forget traumatic events when kept in the dark. And all thanks to a protein that acts as a memory modulator and which — this part interests us — is evolutionarily highly conserved.

In other words, the protein is present in all animals, including humans. The explanation may be relatively simple: light acts as a modulator of brain functions, including memory maintenance.

Sleep, memory processor

Sounds are another important piece, especially when we sleep. Sleep is essential for memory processing.

During the day our brain installs applications (memories), and at night it updates them. In this way, the newly acquired memory would be transformed into long-term memory during the night’s rest.

Following this reasoning, we could also do the opposite: use stimuli, in this case auditory ones, to uninstall negative experiences, as researchers from the University of York, in England, assure in a recent study.

Although studies of this type are still in the experimental phase, they could be very useful to develop future therapies that allow weakening traumatic memories based on auditory stimuli during sleep.

promising drugs

Some of you may be wondering if light pills or sound pills will be sold in the future to help us forget bad memories. We don’t have the answer, but we do have scientific evidence that some existing drugs could contribute to erasing traumatic memory.

Propranolol, for example, a drug used to treat high blood pressure and which allows animals used in laboratory experiments to forget a learned trauma.

The secret could lie in a protein in neurons that determines whether memories should be altered or not. If this protein is broken down, memories become modifiable; and, if it is present, they are maintained.

Despite being works carried out in experiments with animals in the laboratory, they are an excellent model for the study of the nervous system. The human brain, while similar, is more complex. Let’s go to him then.

An anti-inflammatory as a shield against intrusive memories

Traumatic experiences are very difficult to forget and seriously affect people who have gone through them.

That’s what researchers from University College London (UCL), in the United Kingdom, who have just published a study describing how hydrocortisone — an anti-inflammatory drug commonly used to treat arthritis — could favor the process of forgetting memories. intrusive if given after a traumatic event.

Interestingly, the effect was different for women and men, depending on the level of sex hormones in their system. For example, men with high estrogen levels had fewer traumatic memories.

In women, the opposite was true: Elevated estrogen levels made them more susceptible to bad memories after hydrocortisone treatment. This shows that the same drug can have opposite effects in some people; hence the importance of research with a gender perspective.

Currently, hydrocortisone has only been effective when administered in the hours immediately after the trauma or before going to sleep, when memory consolidates. However, science continues to advance in hopes of accelerating the natural forgetting process and limiting long-term psychological distress.

It is true that this type of study has some limitations, such as provoking traumatic stimuli experimentally, which may not reflect the severity of memories that happen after a bad experience in real life.

Still, it opens new doors for the study of new treatments for victims of post-traumatic stress. And maybe even the possibility of erasing the bad memories that prevent them from leading a normal life.

We don’t know what will happen in the future, but if you’re wondering, we recommend watching the movie. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Maybe you’ll find some clue of what’s to come.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation academic news site and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. Read the original version here (in Spanish).

This text was originally published here

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