Destabilizing old memories with novel information

What if one day we could disrupt unwanted consolidated memories like those of old traumatic experiences or even unforgettable heartbreaks and replace them with novel and more pleasant ones? Sounds like a tagline from the 2004 Oscar-winning film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind doesn’t it?

Destabilizing old memories with novel informationPublished in this month’s issue of Learning & Memory, a study by Winters, Tucci, and DaCosta-Furtado over at the University of Guelph, Canada has managed to bring us one step closer to making this seemingly far-fetched idea a reality. They had rats explore sample objects and some time later injected them with either an NMDA receptor antagonist known as MK-801 or a control saline solution before reactivating the object memory.

The authors found that the reconsolidation of young or weakly encoded memories were disrupted by MK-801 regardless of the reactivation conditions. However, when they increased the amount of sample object exploration or the time between sample phase and reactivation (older and stronger memories) the effect of MK-801 was abolished during reconsolidation unless (now this is the interesting part) salient novel contextual information was present during memory reactivation. Their findings support the hypothesis that the reconsolidation process enables modification of existing memories.

Could this be a future treatment option for patients suffering from PTSD? How about for far less severe cases like those who just can’t get over that one ex. For now it seems like we’ll be seeing it “only in theaters”.

Winters, B., Tucci, M., & DaCosta-Furtado, M. (2009). Older and stronger object memories are selectively destabilized by reactivation in the presence of new information Learning & Memory, 16 (9), 545-553 DOI: 10.1101/lm.1509909

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