Researchers discover new way to induce event-specific amnesia

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With the simple charm “obliviate,” Gilderoy Lockhart attempted to wipe the memories of Harry Potter and Ron Weasley in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The release of a publication in Nature Neuroscience suggests a similar spell may soon serve as a treatment for disturbing memories.

This September, researchers at the Radboud University Nijmegen (RUN) in the Netherlands discovered the use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to provide a type of event-specific amnesia—the loss of memory. ECT is a treatment where seizures are electrically induced in patients. In the past, this therapy has been used to treat psychiatric patients for major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and mania. In this new study, ECT was used to intercept the electrical current in the human brain, leading to ‘erased’ or ‘disrupted’ memories.

Marijn Kores, the lead author of the study, and his team used the idea of memory reconsolidation to fuel the experiment. This theory suggests that memories must be re-written onto the brain’s circuits each time they are accessed. In other words, when we remember an event from the past, our memory is removed from its initial storage place in the brain, and is rewritten somewhere else over time.

Using ECT, the researchers tried to disrupt the reconsolidation process. They targeted the memory when it is at its most vulnerable—the point in time when it is rewritten onto another location in the brain—in order to block the reformation of disturbing or unwanted memories.

To test this process, participants were exposed to two distressing stories via slide shows: one consisting of a car accident and the other an assault. A week later, researchers reminded the participants of only one of the stories by replaying that section of the slide show.

ECT was then immediately administered to a section of the participants as they were revisiting that one memory. Further testing one day later showed that patients who received ECT after revisiting one of the memories recalled less details compared to the other non-revisited story. This provides evidence to support memory reconsolidation in humans.

The potential to erase bad memories raises of series of ethical questions.

“What if we wiped out all of the memories of the Holocaust? That would be terrible.” said Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, in an interview with Time. “On the other hand, suffering caused by some memories is really powerful, and I would want to prioritize [relieving] suffering.”

Kores and his team hope to use these results for the benefit of patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, among others.