We all have images, feelings, and experiences trapped inside our heads that we’d rather let go of.
And a Johns Hopkins neuroscientist is trying to make this a reality, with his work on a drug that could eventually make it possible to erase painful emotional memories.
Its not a sci-fi plot line, it’s based on brain chemistry — Dr. Richard Huganir, the director of Hopkins’ neuroscience department has spent 30 years exploring how memories are formed. Now he thinks he has pinpointed a chemical pathway that provides a target for drugs that could block memories in the first place. Here’s how it works:
The scientists focused in on a protein, called calcium-permeable AMPARs, that hangs around for two days after a person experiences a painful emotional event.
To test the protein’s effect on memory, they induced bad experiences in mice by exposing two groups of the rodents to an electric shock while playing a particular sound. One group got a dose of the protein, the other group did not. The ones who had the high levels of the AMPAR protein in their brains held on to the memory of the shock for much longer and kept reacting fearfully to the sound. The other mice let it go.
It means this protein could be important in consolidating and storing emotional memory, so the team is starting to work on a drug to block that protein, to see if this could keep the emotional memory from forming in the first place. Those results are expected next year. Huganir predicted within 10 years a drug could be conceived that would help people who suffer from PTSD.
The idea, understandably, makes people nervous. How do you erase a memory without bringing down other parts of a person’s history and even personality?
But the research points out how multi-layered memories are. Memories for events and images are stored separately from the emotions around them — this drug would only cut the emotional ties.
Emotional memories are really the important ones, though. For our kids, they reach much further than other, more event-based memories — especially before a child is two or three. It’s not so much what they see or hear but how they feel about what happens that influences them. And for some people, painful childhood memories linger and cause strong reactions even in adulthood.
But do you think there’s a use for our painful memories? Do we need them, or if you could severe the ties with a painful emotional memory, would you do it?