Hope for PTSD cure by erasing bad memories

Could erasing memories of distressing events help with PTSD? Scientists think so.
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Could erasing memories of distressing events help with PTSD? Scientists think so.

Soldiers could be cured of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by erasing memories of disturbing events, scientists believe.

Researchers at the University of Toronto have discovered that individual memories are encoded in just a few cells of the brain, and hope they will be able to switch them off using drugs.

Figures from the Ministry of Defence show that around 400 soldiers a year report symptoms of PTSD and, in the last five years, the charity Combat Stress has received nearly 10,000 referrals largely linked to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many more suffer similar trauma - with symptoms including flashbacks, insomnia and paranoia - from events such as child abuse, road accidents and crime.

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Researchers hope they will be able to erase memories of traumatic events after turning off specific memories in mice.

"Although there are millions of neurons in the brain, only a few of them are necessary to form a fear or threat memory," said Dr Sheena Josselyn, Associate Professor in the Department of Physiology.

"Our findings suggest that one day it could be possible to treat people with PTSD by erasing these traumatic memories. In these people, the memories are intrusive and disrupt their lives.

"Our goal would be to find a pharmacological way to target and inactivate just these neurons, like a heat seeking missile-like drug."

Memories are stored in small networks of cells called "engrams" and scientists discovered they could turn off memories by surgically removing engrams in mice.

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The process is similar to that portrayed in the Kate Winslet film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which characters have memories of bad relationships removed at a clinic.

In real life, Josselyn said memories would only be removed when they interfered with mental health.

She added: "We all learn from our mistakes. If we erase the memory of our mistakes, what is to keep us from repeating them?

"Our studies provide a proof-of-principle. However, our society needs to develop ethical policies around the potential use of this."

British experts also expressed concern. Professor Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: "This is an interesting advance but we need to be cautious."

WHERE TO GET HELP

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 - Provides 24 hour telephone counselling

Youthline: 0800 376 633 or free text 234 - Provides 24 hour telephone and text counselling services for young people

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 - Provides 24 hour telephone counselling.

Tautoko: 0508 828 865 - provides support, information and resources to people at risk of suicide, and their family, whānau and friends.

- Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (noon to 11pm)

- Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm - 6pm weekdays)

- The Lowdown: thelowdown.co.nz  - website for young people ages 12 to 19.

- National Depression Initiative - depression.org.nz (for adults), 0800 111 757 - 24 hour service

- If it is an emergency or you feel you or someone you know is at risk, please call 111

 

 

 

 - The Telegraph

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