Treating Mental Illness by Changing Memories of Things Past

A review of memory reconsolidation in Biological Psychiatry

Philadelphia, PA, August 12, 2014

In the novel À larecherche du temps perdu (translated into English as Remembrance of Things Past), Marcel Proust makes a compelling case that our identities and decisions are shaped in profound and ongoing ways by our memories.

This truth is powerfully reflected in mental illnesses,like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addictions. In PTSD, memories of traumas intrude vividly upon consciousness, causing distress, driving people to avoid reminders of their traumas, and increasing risk for addiction and suicide. In addiction, memories of drug use influence reactions to drug-related cues and motivate compulsive drug use.

What if one could change these dysfunctional memories? Although we all like to believe that our memories are reliable and permanent, it turns out that memories may indeed be plastic.
 
The process for modifying memories, depicted in the graphic, is called memory reconsolidation. After memories are formed and stored, subsequent retrieval may make them unstable. In other words, when a memory is activated, it also becomes open to revision and reconsolidation in a new form.



"Memory reconsolidation is probably among the most exciting phenomena in cognitive neuroscience today. It assumes that memories may be modified once they are retrieved which may give us the great opportunity to change seemingly robust, unwanted memories," explains Dr. Lars Schwabe of Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany. He and his colleagues have authored a review paper on the topic, published in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry.

The idea of memory reconsolidation was initially discovered and demonstrated in rodents.

The first evidence of reconsolidation in humans was reported in a study in 2003, and the findings have since continued to accumulate. The current report summarizes the most recent findings on memory reconsolidation in humans and poses additional questions that must be answered by future studies.

"Reconsolidation appears to be a fundamental process underlying cognitive and behavioral therapies. Identifying its roles and mechanisms is an important step forward to fully harnessing the reconsolidation process in psychotherapy," said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

The translation of the animal data to humans is a vital step for the potential application of memory reconsolidation in the context of mental disorders. Memory reconsolidation could open the door to novel treatment approaches for disorders such as PTSD or drug addiction.

The article is "Reconsolidation of Human Memory: Brain Mechanisms and Clinical Relevance" by Lars Schwabe, Karim Nader, and Jens C. Pruessner (DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.03.008). The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 76, Issue 4 (August 15, 2014), published by Elsevier.

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Notes for editors
Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Rhiannon Bugno at +1 214 648 0880 or Biol.Psych@utsouthwestern.edu. Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Dr. Lars Schwabe at +49 40 428384382 or Lars.Schwabe@uni-hamburg.de.

The authors' affiliations, and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

John H. Krystal, M.D., is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, Chief of Psychiatry at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.

About Biological Psychiatry
Biological Psychiatry is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal publishes both basic and clinical contributions from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major psychiatric disorders.

The journal publishes novel results of original research which represent an important new lead or significant impact on the field, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Reviews and commentaries that focus on topics of current research and interest are also encouraged.

Biological Psychiatry is one of the most selective and highly cited journals in the field of psychiatric neuroscience. It is ranked 5th out of 135 Psychiatry titles and 14th out of 251 Neurosciences titles in the Journal Citations Reports® published by Thomson Reuters. The 2013 Impact Factor score for Biological Psychiatry is 9.472.

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Media contact
Rhiannon Bugno
Editorial Office
+1 214 648 0880
Biol.Psych@utsouthwestern.edu