Emotional memories that are recently formed can be erased from the human brain.

A new study by Thomas Agren, a doctoral candidate at the Department of Psychology, under the observation of Professors Mats Fredrikson and Tomas Furmark, has indicated that it is possible to erase newly formed emotional memories from the brain. This finding, published in Science, brings scientists a huge step forward in future research on memory and fear.

The results coincide previous research which suggested that memories of fear can be substantially modified into benign memories when they are ripe for change, and can be kept that way.

An enduring long-term memory is formed when individuals take in new information by using the process of consolidation, which is based on the formation of proteins. When we recall an event, a place, or anything from our past, the memory becomes unstable for a while. Another consolidation process begins, and the memory is restabilized.

This is because we are not remembering what originally happened, but instead, recalling what we remembered the previous time we thought about what happened, the authors explained.

Memory content can be impacted by interrupting the reconsolidation process that occurs after remembrance.

The participants in the study were shown a neutral picture, while given an electric shock at the same time. This was done so that the picture came to elicit fear, meaning a the subjects formed a fear memory. The picture was then displayed without any shock in order to activate the fear memory.

The reconsolidation process was disrupted in one experimental group by repeatedly showing presentations of the image. A control group was also observed, where the reconsolidation process was finished before the volunteers were shown the same repeated presentations of the picture.

In turn, the experimental group was not able to reconsolidate the fear memory, the fear they had previously connected with the picture dissipated.

The findings suggest that by disrupting the reconsolidation process, the memory was made neutral and no longer associated with fear. The scientists used a MR-scanner, which proved that the traces of that memory was no longer in the part of the brain that usually stores fearful memories, the nuclear group of amygdala in the temporal lobe.

Thomas Ågren concluded:

“These findings may be a breakthrough in research on memory and fear. Ultimately the new findings may lead to improved treatment methods for the millions of people in the world who suffer from anxiety issues like phobias, post-traumatic stress, and panic attacks.”

Written by Sarah Glynn