What’s the News: Recurring nightmares can cast a pall over anyone’s waking life, and for soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, they can also contribute to panic attacks, flashbacks, and violent behavior. Can soothing, dream-like experiences in a virtual world, entered immediately after a nightmare runs its course, tame those bad dreams? It seems like a kind of real-life inception, but it’s not as far fetched as you’d think: the Army is investigating just such a treatment, Dawn Lim at Wired’s Danger Room reports.
What’s the News: Researchers have considerably weakened—and perhaps even erased—long-term memories in Aplysia, a type of marine slug, and in neurons in a lab dish, by blocking the activity of a particular enzyme. Understanding how to weaken and erase such memories could one day lead to new treatments for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, who are haunted by memories of traumatic events.
Despite the prevalence of post traumatic stress disorder, especially in veterans (an estimated one in five from Iraq and Afghanistan have it, according to the Department of Defense), it can be maddeningly tricky to diagnose. But in a new study in Journal of Neural Engineering, brain researcher Apostolos Georgopoulos argues that his team has found, through the brain scanning technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG), a pattern in the brain associated with PTSD. In a MEG scan, researchers measure the magnetic fields generated by electric activity in the brain; the scans are far faster than those taken via MRI.
Georgopoulos and colleagues studied 74 U.S. veterans with PTSD and 250 people with no mental health problems. They scanned the brains of study participants looking for a signal that might distinguish a PTSD patient from a healthy volunteer [Reuters]. The researchers mapped the neural interactions for both groups, and they say that the resulting map of biomarkers allowed them to look at brain scans, without knowing whether the person had PTSD or not, and pick out the PTSD patients from controls with 90 percent accuracy.
By manipulating a single protein found in the brains of mice, researchers can wipe out a mouse’s specific, traumatic memory without damaging brain cells, a new study reports. While the process is nowhere near ready for testing in humans, researchers say it does raise the possibility of novel treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions. “While memories are great teachers and obviously crucial for survival and adaptation, selectively removing incapacitating memories, such as traumatic war memories or an unwanted fear, could help many people live better lives,” said [lead researcher] Joe Tsien [Telegraph].
Humans have the same so-called “memory molecule” in our brains, and the announcement is certain to prompt speculation that sci-fi scenarios of memory erasure are almost upon us. The concept was the premise of the popular 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which two former lovers pay a “memory-erasure” service to expunge the unhappy affair from their minds [HealthDay News].