Spotless Mind? Erasing Painful Memories May Soon Happen

In the 2004 movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” two lovers have their minds erased to forget the painful memories of their relationship. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, this medical technology could potentially happen in the near future.

The Johns Hopkins researchers say they are working on ways to remove the proteins from the brain’s fear center, which would erase memories forever in victims of post traumatic stress disorder, the Baltimore Sun reported.

“When a traumatic event occurs, it creates a fearful memory that can last a lifetime and have a debilitating effect on a person’s life,” said Richard L. Huganir, professor and chair of neuroscience at the Hopkins School of Medicine.

Experts say there are pros and cons to erasing memories.

Kate Farinholt, executive director of NAMI Maryland, a mental health support group, told the Sun, while it may be beneficial to erase a memory, there are still unanswered questions.

"Erasing a memory and then everything bad built on that is an amazing idea, and I can see all sorts of potential," she said. "But completely deleting a memory, assuming it's one memory, is a little scary. How do you remove a memory without removing a whole part of someone's life, and is it best to do that, considering that people grow and learn from their experiences."

Previous research showed that a specific form of behavior therapy seemed to erase some painful memories, but a relapse could be necessary because the memory wasn’t completely gone.

Huganir and his colleague discovered a “window of vulnerability” when unique receptor proteins are created. The proteins intercede signals traveling within the brain as distressing memories are created. Because the proteins are unsteady, they can be removed by drugs or behavior therapy during the window to be sure the memory is eliminated.

Past research already had shown that a specific form of behavior therapy seemed to erase painful memories. But relapse was possible because the memory wasn't necessarily gone.

By looking at that process, Huganir and postdoctoral fellow Roger L. Clem discovered a "window of vulnerability" when unique receptor proteins are created. The proteins mediate signals traveling within the brain as painful memories are made. Because the proteins are unstable, they can be easily removed with drugs or behavior therapy during the window, ensuring the memory is eliminated.

Huganir is looking for ways to reopen the window months after the painful event happens, which is important because doctors don’t see victims immediately after a traumatic event, and PTSD can surface months after the event happens.

Huganir’s report is published in last month’s “Science Express.”

Huganir, whose report on erasing fear memories in rodents was published online last month by Science Express also believes that the window may exist in other centers of learning and may eventually be used to treat pain or drug addiction.

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