Researchers discover how old memories are re-saved and changed

Jun 22, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers at McGill University have discovered a series of molecular mechanisms that regulate how our brains call up, restore and even change old memories.

This process, called memory reconsolidation, radically alters our understanding of how memory works. The McGill team led by Prof. Karim Nader discovered that extremely strong fear memories do not initially undergo reconsolidation, but over time (on the order of a month or so) even these memories can undergo reconsolidation. Furthermore, the authors identified some of the brain mechanisms that determine whether a memory will or will not undergo reconsolidation. Their results will be published in the journal on June 21.

“The old theory is that once a memory is wired in your brain, it stays that way,” explained Nader, William Dawson Scholar and EWR Steacie Fellow in the Department of Psychology. “But our discovery shows that once you remember something, it doesn’t stay wired in your brain, it becomes unwired and needs to be restored again - reconsolidation.”

This latest finding builds on Nader’s previous research which showed that it was possible to chemically erase fearful memories in rats. That research shed light on the of memory and showed that long-term memories can be unlocked and even modified. Nader’s discoveries challenged traditional views about the neural basis for memory.

The new findings deepen our understanding of the molecular basis by which the brain controls which memories do and do not undergo reconsolidation. Reconsolidation blockade has been suggested as a possible new treatment for sufferers of , including those involving uncontrollable, intrusive memories, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The results of this research indicate that reconsolidation based therapies of PTSD should not attempt to treat patients shortly after the trauma. This is because these extremely strong memories may not undergo reconsolidation for a long period of time, up to a few months after experiencing the trauma.

Nader has previously collaborated with a team led by Roger Pitman of Harvard University and McGill University Psychiatrist and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute researcher Dr. Alain Brunet; that collaboration demonstrated that interrupted reconsolidation can be used to relieve the suffering of patients with chronic PTSD. The therapy involves administering a common blood pressure drug, propranolol, as a traumatic event is recounted. The propranolol partially blocks the reconsolidation of the fear associated with the memory. Amazingly, the trend of these findings indicates that those with the oldest trauma responded best to the treatment, exactly the same effect as found by Nader’s group.

“These findings are very exciting because we have always known that not every memory undergoes reconsolidation. But there was nothing known about the mechanisms that determine when a does or does not undergo reconsolidation. These findings suggest a neurobiological principle that controls this process. Understanding these mechanisms is crucial because they tell us what has to happen on a neurobiological level in order to turn reconsolidation on and off. This is clinically important because in the clinic we want to be able to turn reconsolidation on and off if possible.” said Nader.

Provided by McGill University (news : web)

Explore further: Even when we're resting, our brains are preparing us to be social

Related Stories

'Trauma pill' could help those with PTSD

Jan 30, 2006

A "trauma pill" could blot out memories of harrowing events for combat veterans and survivors of accidents or terrorism, say Canadian researchers.

New strategy to weaken traumatic memories

Mar 17, 2009

Imagine that you have been in combat and that you have watched your closest friend die in front of you. The memory of that event may stay with you, troubling you for the rest of your life. Posttraumatic stress disorder ...

Recommended for you

Unlearning implicit social biases during sleep

2 hours ago

Can we learn to rid ourselves of our implicit biases regarding race and gender? A new Northwestern University study indicates that sleep may hold an important key to success in such efforts.

Deciphering dark and bright

2 hours ago

The human sensory systems contend with enormous diversity in the natural world. But it has been known for a long time the brain is adapted to exploit statistical regularities that nonetheless arise amongst this diversity. ...

How we make emotional decisions

4 hours ago

Some decisions arouse far more anxiety than others. Among the most anxiety-provoking are those that involve options with both positive and negative elements, such choosing to take a higher-paying job in a ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Birger
5 / 5 (2) Jun 23, 2009
In witness psychology, it has long been known that memories are fluid; when people are told what they are "expected" to remember, the brain confabulates to fill in the gaps accordingly. This is a different process than the one mentioned in the article, but it reinforces the view that memories are more untrustworthy than most people think.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.