Memories are a tricky thing. They can be full of joy or full of fear. It's those crappy, fearful, bad ones — like remembering getting bitten by a dog, for example — that we all wish we could get rid of. That soon could be a reality as scientists experimenting with memory have developed a technique to stop fearful memories from forming.
Scientists at Uppsala University in Sweden have learned the key lies in how a memory is formed. They now know that when the brain learns something, the memory is created through "consolidation." That means at first the memory is shaky, until specific proteins in the brain cement the memory in place.
The scientists reason that if something happened to interrupt the process of the fearful or scary memory being fixed in place, then perhaps the original experience of it would simply be forgotten.
To prove the theory they showed neutral images to participants in their memory study. The images could be anything from a landscape to an object — something that wouldn't normally elicit a negative memory. During the study they would administer electric shocks to participants when looking at certain pictures. In doing so they were setting up a "fear memory" which would be associated with that picture even some time later.
To then experiment with the consolidation theory of memory, they altered the test with half of the participants. This group was repeatedly shown an image that had been associated with shock in the text, along with other images a short time after the initial shock or "fear memory" was created. In short, they were attempting to disrupt that period of time when the proteins are formed, and memories fixed in place.
The results showed those who had the process of memory consolidation disrupted essentially had the initial fear response wiped clean. The next step will be figuring out how to practically disrupt the process of memory consolidation in real time situations.
In a related study, scientists in Brooklyn have isolated a certain chemical compound called PKMzeta, which shows up during that memory consolidation period; this chemical molecule surrounds the neurons as they cement the memories in place. Not unlike the theory the Swedish scientists put forth, the Brooklyn team figured that, if they could disrupt the chemical, they could disrupt the memory formation. In this case they used drug called ZIP that did just that. Though it hasn't developed this far, it means, in theory because it is a drug it could be administered like a pill.
Both sets of research show promise at being able to treat fearful or upsetting memories — but the limitation is that the result is only known in real-time settings. For people who suffer from PTSD with multiple fearful memories — such as soldiers or accident victims — erasing those memories isn't there yet. The science has not figured out how to reach back and erase memories that have already been formed.
So: memories of that bad prom you had? Still there, for the time being at least.
Still, the results of short-term memory disruption is a giant leap into understanding brain chemistry and how we might be able to treat painful memories in the past.