(Long Island, NY) Scientists have been working on not a drug, but an electrotherapeutic process which may lead to a remedy for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other depressive disorders. Research already suggests that the act of recalling an unwanted memory, if accompanied by an electric shock to the brain, can deter these memories from recall.
Subject with EEG recording electrodes arranged around his head. Wikimedia Commons. Author: Aschoeke
The process is called electroconvulsive therapy, formerly known as electroshock treatment, on a patient. So far, this research experiment detailed in Nature Neuroscience has shown “a pretty strong effect” said Marijn C W Kroes, neuroscientist at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, the lead author of the study.
“Despite accumulating evidence for a re-consolidation process in animals, support in humans, especially for episodic memory, is limited. Using a within-subjects manipulation, we found that a single application of electroconvulsive therapy following memory reactivation in patients with unipolar depression disrupted reactivated, but not non-reactivated, memories for an emotional episode in a time-dependent manner. Our results provide evidence for re-consolidation of emotional episodic memories in humans.”
The technique, called electroconvulsive (ECT) or electroshock therapy induces seizures by passing current into the brain through electrode pads placed on the scalp. Despite its sometimes negative reputation, ECT is an effective last-resort treatment for severe depression, and is used today in combination with anesthesia and muscle relaxants.
The experiment was conducted with 39 – 42 test subjects already undergoing electroconvulsive therapy for severe depression – all whom were put into 3 separate groups (A,B, and C) and shown horrible stories with ill endings mostly involving the death or mistreatment of a child. Participants were initially told that the study was focused on memory, and were told to pay close attention to both the images and the stories. The subjects were then asked to remember certain events from the films under different circumstances, some over a period of time, and some immediately thereafter, with 13 members of group C not receiving ECT treatment.
According to the findings reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the ability to disrupt or even abolish specific memories, whilst leaving others intact, is believed to be possible.
Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Hospital also studies memory re-consolidation and says more work is needed to establish how long the ECT effects last, and whether the technique works as effectively on older or more complex memories from real-life experiences.
Elizabeth Phelps, professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, was not involved with this research but familiar with it. Phelps was somewhat critical of the results saying the overall recall wasn’t great, making the differences between the groups small. She also pointed out alternatives “If you could take away the fear associated with the memory and keep the memory, that would be more optimal,” she says.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder develops after a terrifying ordeal that involves physical harm or the threat of physical harm. PTSD was first brought to public attention in relation to war veterans, but it can result from a variety of traumatic incidents, such as muggings, rape, torture, kidnapping, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters. The National Library of Medicine’s registry of federally and privately funded clinical trials lists studies currently taking place for anxiety disorders or PTSD.