Erasing painful memories

By • Published: November 6th, 2009
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Touch the side of your head at the top part of your ear with your index finger, and you are pointing at the amygdala [a-mig-da-la], one of the most intriguing parts of the brain.

Shaped like a pair of almonds, these two tiny bits are believed to be a hub for memory, emotions, and the so-called “fight or flight” response to danger.

Swiss scientists recently wanted to find out why young rats easily forget events that frightened them, while older ones always remember.

They looked to the amygdala for answers, discovering that memory retention has to do with a highly organized system of molecules that forms a network between the brain cells.

It’s like a snare for frightening memories.

When researchers injected an enzyme to tear down the molecular net, adult rats still learned to respond to a loud sound as a traumatic event.

But they later learned to associate the same sound with a pleasant event, something that would be out of the question for an adult animal.

Scientists believe that with training the animals came close to completely erasing their “fear” memories.

A human treatment based on the technique is not foreseeable… yet.

But the discovery suggests that drugs can be developed to help people who sufferer from panic attacks and posttraumatic stress “unlearn” frightening memories.

Or perhaps even eliminate them. Some will find the slightest notion of “erasing” memory completely objectionable. Others will see it as a way to return the brain to a younger, more pliable state.

But for now, the only place the discovery will take us for certain is back to the amygdala… for more answers.