Is it possible to rewrite traumatic memories?

Neuroscientists conclude that neurons that store traumatic memories are the key to overcome them

Is it possible to rewrite traumatic memories?

A study conducted by the École Polythechnique Fédéral de Laussane, or EPFL, found that traumatic memories can be “rewritten” in order to overcome such memories. This reprogramming of the brain is achieved due to a series of cells that store trauma itself. This could mean that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could be effectively treated in the future. 

However, it is still problematic our understanding of memory storage in the brain. The everlasting debate is whether traumatic memories could be replaced with a memory trace of safety or rather rewritten into safety. The answer to this question dwells in the comprehension of the mechanism of how memories are stored in neurons. 

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“Our findings shed, for the first time, light onto the processes that underlie the successful treatment of traumatic memories", said Professor Johannes Gräff, head of the team that conducted the study. Even though research in this specific area is focused on the capacity of the brain of reducing the impact of traumatic memories, this study tries to explore ways in which fear- and in consequence, trauma- can be attenuated. 

What are the potential benefits of these findings?

According to the U.S. Department for Veteran Affairs, the most common treatments for disorders like PTSD is psychotherapy and medication. For the first one, the effectiveness rate is unknown, as it consist on a dialogue between the patient and the therapist. It could take years in some cases to show improvement. As for medication, it is an invasive treatment that could have higher effectiveness, but also side effects. 

This study is the first step into treating the problem from its core, given that the understanding of the mechanics of how we store memories advances. It could mean that, in the future, people could have effective treatment for trauma and memory rewriting without side effects. 

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In order for this to happen, a process called “fear attenuation” must be performed. The EPFL team discovered, through mice experimentation, which fear attenuation is linked to the activity of the neurons that store the trauma itself. By working with mice that have a “reporter gene”, which produces a measurable signal after brain activity, scientists were able to identify the group of neurons related to long term trauma. The group of cells were located in the dentate gyrus, a region of the hippocampus linked with fear and trauma processing.

The mice were involved in a series of “trauma attenuating training”, which resembles therapy for humans and discovered that some of the neurons involved in the recalling of trauma were still activating, thus implicating that the same group of cells are involved in storage and attenuation of trauma. 

Gräff explained that a scared mouse would show very limited behavior when observed, naturally being cautious and confined to a corner of its cage. When treated with fear attenuating therapy, the mouse started moving more freely on its environment, as the source of its fear was reprogrammed to safety.  

When experimenting with the neurons themselves, scientists found that in poor excitable conditions for the neurons in mice, they would show less impact on the therapy, but when the conditions were in favor of excitability, the mice would show effective response for the treatment. 


LatinAmerican Post | Iván Parada Hernández
Copy edited by Marcela Peñaloza


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