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Researchers Find They Can Weaken Fear Memories, a Discovery That Could Help Treat Trauma

Scientists could be one step closer to finding a way to reduce the impact of traumatic memories, according to a new study.

Stephen Maren, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Texas A&M University, said the group’s findings suggest that procedures used by physicians to indirectly reactivate traumatic memories provide a window in which those memories can be altered or even erased by full.

In therapy, imaginary reminders are often used to safely retrieve traumatic memories of experiences. For example, Maren said a military veteran injured by an improvised explosive device can be asked to re-experience signs of trauma, such as the lights and sounds of the blast, without the negative consequences. The idea is that responses to fear can be attenuated through this exposure therapy.

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“The main challenge is that when extinction procedures are performed, the memory of the original trauma is not erased,” Maren said. “It is always there and can reappear, which is what causes relapse in people who experience fear again.”

With this in mind, the researchers hoped to answer whether they could isolate a memory and generate fear responses by artificially reactivating it, potentially altering the original memory itself. Maren said his findings, published in Neuroscience of nature, suggest that the procedures currently used by physicians to indirectly reactivate traumatic memories create an opportunity to change or eliminate them.

To do this, the researchers used a conditioning procedure in which a signal is indirectly associated with a terrifying event. When the signal is presented later, it indirectly reactivates a memory of the event and increases activity in the hippocampus, an area of ​​the brain important for memory.

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The study showed that indirectly reactivate a contextual fear memory by re-exposure to the cue can make the memory vulnerable to disruption. Maren said more research is needed to answer whether scientists can produce a permanent loss of traumatic information, but this initial finding is encouraging for anyone affected by trauma.

Fountain: Texas A&M University

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