Can Your Fear Memories Be Erased?

All of us have felt fear at some point of time. There have also been things like a sight, sound or smell that can trigger fear in us because of its association with a traumatic event in the past. So how can these ‘fear memories’ be weakened so that we don’t relive the trauma again and again?

Researchers at the University of California have devised a method to selectively erase particular fear memories by weakening the connections between the nerve cells (neurons) involved in forming these memories.

In their lab experiments, Dr Jun-Hyeong Cho, an assistant professor of molecular, cell, and systems biology, and Dr Woong Bin Kim, his postdoctoral researcher, found that fear memory can be manipulated in such a way that some beneficial memories are retained while others, detrimental to our daily life, are suppressed.

The research, published in the journal ‘Neuron’, offers insights into how PTSD and specific phobias may be better treated.

Says Dr Cho, “In the brain, neurons communicate with each other through synaptic connections, in which signals from one neuron are transmitted to another neuron by means of neurotransmitters. We demonstrated that the formation of fear memory associated with a specific auditory cue involves selective strengthening in synaptic connections, which convey the auditory signals to the amygdala, a brain area essential for fear learning and memory. We also demonstrated that selective weakening of the connections erased fear memory for the auditory cue.” He adds, “This study expands our understanding of how adaptive fear memory for a relevant stimulus is encoded in the brain. It is also applicable to developing a novel intervention to selectively suppress pathological fear while preserving adaptive fear in PTSD.”

The researchers note that their method can be adapted for other research, such as ‘reward learning’. In fact, they plan next to study the mechanisms involved in reward learning and have implications in treating addictive behaviours in people.

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