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Study Finds Painful Memories Last Longer, May Lead to New PTSD Treatment

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By Cheryl Steinberg

If it seems like your memories of traumatic events linger longer than say, pleasant memories, your perception is not off. Scientists say that this is a real thing and that they are gaining an understanding why this is so.

For the first time, studies conducted with laboratory rats have revealed the brain mechanism that converts unpleasant experiences into long-lasting memories.

These newest findings support a previous, long-standing hypothesis – one that’s been relied upon for the past 65 years – called Hebbian plasticity. The idea is this: when you experience something traumatic, more neurons than the usual are firing off electrical impulses at the same time, making stronger connections to each other when compared to normal situations. Therefore, stronger connections make stronger, lasting memories.

Study Finds Painful Memories Last Longer, May Lead to New PTSD Treatment

Not only do these new findings advance the understanding of how Hebbian plasticity works but, they may also lead to new, more effective treatments for people who want to forget horrible memories, such as those who suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The study, by researchers at New York University and Japan’s RIKEN Brain Science Institute, appears December 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s believed that Hebbian plasticity works when the amygdala, the brain region associated with the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions, allows sensory stimuli to become associated with either something positive (a reward) or negative (an aversion), thus producing corresponding emotional memories. The saying in the field is that “neurons that fire together, wire together,” and therefore forming strong connections.

“Our results not only show that we are able to artificially manipulate memory, but also that this manipulation is correlated with long-lasting changes in the brain,” said Lorenzo Diaz-Mataix, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU and also lead author on the report. “Basic findings like this one will potentially help to understand and treat many psychiatric conditions that share aberrant memory processing,” he told Live Science.

Hearkening back to our primitive state, being able to remember scary events, such as an animal attack, clearly has advantages; we needed to know when to take heed, in order to survive and evolve.

But sometimes memories can be too painful. For people who have traumatizing, painful memories, such as those with PTSD, Johansen says, the new findings offer hope.

“Because of the importance of forgetting aversive memories for PTSD, many labs, including my own, are trying to understand how these types of memories can be forgotten,” Johansen told Live Science. “One possibility is that instead of tapping into ‘forgetting’ mechanisms, we try to reverse what happened during memory formation. Our findings in this paper are important in this regard and may enable novel approaches to enhance the forgetting or reversal of learning of aversive experiences.”

Often times, unresolved trauma is at the heart of substance abuse and addiction disorders. At Palm Partners, we offer Rapid Resolution Therapy to overcome trauma, which is especially helpful for clients with PTSD. Please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135 to speak with an Addiction Specialist today.

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