Scientists believe that memory is capable of being molded like hot metal, and new techniques for altering recall may benefit individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Reconsolidation” is the process by which researchers believe old memories can be reshaped into something new, either through drugs or one-on-one interventions with a medical professional. As the craft is perfected, scientists believe they will be able to make life easier for soldiers back from the battlefield or the journalists assigned to war-torn regions, The Atlantic reported Wednesday.
“In memory research, we talk about three parts,” Ken Paller, director of the cognitive neuroscience program at Northwestern University, told the magazine. Mr. Paller says that memory is recalled through “acquisition,” “consolidation,” and “coding.” Memories are all recalled in different ways, and the more often a person retrieves a memory, the stronger it becomes. Scientists now believe that by changing the pathway a memory travels (e.g., making a bad memory traverse an electrical route reserved for more peaceful memories), and then strengthening it, a patient’s anguish could be greatly alleviated.
“Seemingly stable memories may re-enter an unstable state when they are retrieved, from which they must be re-stabilized … During reconsolidation, memories are susceptible to modification again,” Wendy Suzuki, a researcher at New York University’s Center for Neural Science, told The Atlantic. Researchers can either do this by distracting a patient as he recalls an event, employing pharmaceuticals, or a combination of both.
Not all scientists are as optimistic about reconsolidation, however. Paul Reber, director of Northwestern University’s Brain, Behavior, and Cognition program, told The Atlantic that most of the research done on the method has been performed on animals.
“In animal studies, you have the greatest control over the neural systems, but you don’t have any access to the subjective experience of memory,” he told the magazine. “So you can build models of things you think might be related to what humans experience with PTSD, but you don’t really know how they’re connected.”