It has been the stuff of science fiction for decades. Now scientists have found a way to wipe out painful memories.
They have shown that if we are forced to recall something negative very shortly after the experience, it can be ‘rewritten’ for the better.
The finding could one day be used to help soldiers traumatised by the horrors of battle.
Researchers gave a group of volunteers mild electric shocks while they looked at a picture of a coloured square.
The next day they were subjected to the same combination, to bring back the painful memory, before repeatedly being shown the picture alone.
They were again shown the image alone the day after that – and when their levels of anxiety were measured their fear had all but gone, the journal Nature reports.
Being shown the picture without the shock within ten minutes after their second exposure to the picture with the shock seemed to rewire the brain’s response.
Dr Daniela Schiller, from New York University, said: ‘This suggests that during the lifetime of a memory there are windows of opportunity where it becomes susceptible to becoming permanently changed.’
The beauty of the latest approach, say the U.S. researchers, is that it is entirely natural.
With animal experiments giving similar results, it seems that our memories are not set in stone. Instead, they can updated with new information during a brief period between being retrieved and re-stored.
The exact amount of time is not certain but is clearly under six hours.
Professor Phelps said: ‘Timing may have a more important role in the control of fear than previously appreciated.
‘Our memory reflects our last retrieval of it rather than an exact account of the original event.’ …
The researchers are unsure exactly how the finding would be put into practice on patients.
But they believe it offers hope of a more natural alternative to memory-erasing drugs under research. ….
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