What if you had access to a technology with the power to short-circuit negative memories before they formed would you do it?
We may not be far away from this science-fiction concept becoming reality, because the technology is already here. Its called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and a new study just showed how it can be used to disrupt memory formation and potentially help treat conditions linked to negative memories, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
TMS already has a long list of studies backing it as a treatment for depression, usually when nothing else works. Its noninvasive (no electrodes in brain tissue needed) and uses magnetic fields to stimulate targeted nerve cells in the brain to trigger a response. In the latest study, TMS was used to interfere with memory consolidation in the prefrontal cortex, seat of our brains executive functions.
"This experimental protocol combining transcranial stimulation and memory reconsolidation allowed us to modify an aversive memory that the participants had learned the day before, said Sara Borgomaneri, a researcher at the University of Bologna and first author of the study.
The study included just under 100 healthy adults who each learned a negative memory and the next day underwent a TMS session targeting their brains prefrontal cortex.
"First, we created the aversive memory by combining an unpleasant stimulation with some images, explained Borgomaneri. "The day after, we presented a group of participants with the same stimulus, which, in their memory, was recorded as aversive. Using TMS immediately afterwards, we interfered with their prefrontal cortex activity.
For comparison, other groups of participants underwent TMS without an aversive memory, and others were stimulated with TMS in brain areas not involved in memory reconsolidation.
"Every time an event is recalled in our memory, there is a limited period of time in which it can be altered, according to study co-author Simone Battaglia. "The protocol we developed exploits this short time window and can, therefore, interfere with the reconsolidation process of learned aversive memories.
To find out if it worked, the research team waited another day and then tested how participants reacted when the memory was recalled. Participants that underwent TMS targeting of their prefrontal cortex showed a reduced psycho-physiological response to the unpleasant stimulus.They could still recall the event but didnt have the same negative response.
Considering what science has uncovered about conditions like depression, panic disorders and PTSD, these results are significant. Research suggests that psycho-physiological responses linked to negative memorieswhat happens in our bodies when negative memory is explicitly recalledis at the core of these conditions (an area of study captured especially well in Dr. Bessel van der Kolks pioneering book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma).
"With TMS, we could alter the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, which proved to be fundamental in the reconsolidation process of aversive memories," added Borgomaneri. "Thanks to this procedure, we obtained results that, until now, were only possible by delivering drugs to patients.
This is more a proof of concept study than anything else and future research will follow. Whats for certain, however, is were right at the edge of opening new doors into ways of noninvasively manipulating brain processes. A large part of this will no doubt be for the good, as this study suggests, but wed do well to consider other implications that will come right along with the benefits.
The study was published in the journal Cell Biology.
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