A window into the mind that allows painful memories to be erased has been identified by scientists.
By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent
Telegraph | 10 Dec 2009
The researchers found that it was possible to open up memories and then remove fear and trauma permanently.
Unlike previous research the move does not require medication and can be achieved using existing therapies.
The researchers think that the new technique could help war veterans get over the horrors of conflict and cure people with debilitating phobias
It could even eventually be applied to ease the pain of a failed relationship or a bereavement like in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
"Our research suggests that during the lifetime of a memory there are windows of opportunity where it becomes susceptible to be permanently changed," said Dr Daniela Schiller, lead author at New York University.
"By understanding the dynamics of memory we might, in the long run, open new avenues of treatment for disorders that involve abnormal emotional memories, "
The technique, reported in the journal Nature, may change how we view the storage processes of memory and could lead to new ways to treat anxiety disorders.
Normal therapy for extreme fear assumes memories are permanent and can only be modified through a process called "extinction training" where patients are conditioned to suppress the thoughts.
But after the therapy the bad memories can resurface under certain conditions, such as unrelated stress - and lead to other psychological problems.
However the new technique allows for it to be permanently erased.
Scientists have discovered that far from permanent, there are specific "reconsolidation windows" in which memories can be opened and then completely re-written.
Through research into humans and rats, they discovered that deliberately invoking the fear leads to it being vulnerable to being erased or permanently re-written before the brain re-stores it.
A window of modification exists for about an hour, beginning 10 minutes after the fear is recalled.
During this instability period, new information could be incorporated into the old memory.
As a result, fear responses no longer return.
"Timing may have a more important role in the control of fear than previously appreciated," Dr Elizabeth Phelps, co-author said.
"Our memory reflects our last retrieval of it rather than an exact account of the original event."