Violent crime, sexual assault or witnessing war firsthand – the fallout from a traumatic event may have lifelong consequences. But what if you could erase these bad memories and negative triggers from your brain?
It’s a novel idea, something out of a sci-fi fantasy, but Canadian doctors out of McGill University suggest their research is laying the groundwork to make the concept a reality in the future.
You wouldn’t forget the memory completely, but your reaction won’t trigger a visceral fear of death, a panic or loss of security, or any stress-inducing PTSD you may have faced before.
“Memories make you who you are so erasing memories is still a little bit scary, but these non-associative memories hopefully can be selectively erased. These are the memories that make you anxious or make you scared of things that prevent you from living your life. They’re not what generate your identity. That’s the hope but it would require a lot of research,” Dr. Wayne Sossin, a McGill University researcher and professor at the Montreal Neurological Institute, told Global News.
“I could conceive it…I can envision ways of doing it,” Sossin said.
Sossin has been studying memory for decades but he also has a background in computer science. He learned that computers have distinct paths of memory that have been identified but the inner pathways of the human brain are much more mysterious.
“We have no idea how memories are stored. It was a big question to me and a question worth studying,” he said.
There are different kinds of memories
Semantic: This is your knowledge of the world, your memory of facts, such as the multiplication table or geography.
Associative: These are memories you learn and remember that link unrelated items. You could, for example, remember the name of actors in a movie or the name of a cuisine and its scent. With bad experiences, you could remember being mugged in a dark alleyway.
Non-associative: In these memories, you’re building links tied to peripheral information. If you’re a soldier in Afghanistan, you may have seen a red flag before a bomb went off, so you associate the colour red with the traumatic event. Sossin’s study points to seeing a mailbox before getting mugged and encountering an unsettling feeling when you see a mailbox later on.
When an emotional, scary or traumatic event happens, multiple memories end up being encoded in the process. This includes the non-associative memories, the neutral information, that ends up being encoded as negative or frightening because of the event surrounding it.
People end up with triggers from these extra details. Sossin suggests it’s non-associative memories that can be weaved out.
“They’re stored in a different way. We’re trying to remove those triggers that are peripherally associated but they get tied to this painful event. We might be able to remove them and not affect the memory,” he suggests.
He’s done the initial research on snails and molluscs while collaborating with Columbia University scientists. Researchers work with snails because they’re a reliable system for studying the cellular and molecular basis for memory.
Sossin learned that memories can be manipulated by interfering with specific molecules. Turns out, neurons hold two different types of memories – one sensory neuron can bring up an associative memory and others induce a non-associate memory.
But Sossin’s lab figured out how to delete the non-associate memory by blocking certain molecules.
Keep in mind, this is very early research. Sossin said he plans to carry out more research on other species before, potentially, working his way up to the human brain.
The ultimate goal is to apply the research to humans grappling with PTSD, trauma and other mental health issues stemming from bad memories. A drug therapy or injection could be enough to reroute memories.
The Canadian study is a part of a library of growing research in what Dr. Steve Joordens calls “memory management.” He’s a University of Toronto at Scarborough psychology professor.
He calls this field of study “cutting edge” and less than a decade old.
When a traumatic event happens, your body kicks into survival mode: you breathe faster, your muscles tense up while your brain goes into overdrive processing information.
These same instincts kick in when you’re presented with triggers that take you back to that fateful event. It’s a survival tactic akin to feeling your stomach churn after seeing a dish that once gave you food poisoning.
Joordens said scientists are now relying on beta blockers and other therapies to dull or shut down this fight-or-flight response when you’re faced with an innocuous trigger.
“It doesn’t stop you from reliving the memory but it allows you to kind of do it as a tourist — watching but not living it,” he said.
“You’re not forgetting the memory but you’re having the memory without the negative emotional attachment,” Joordens said.
Read Sossin’s full findings.