Scientists Figuring Out How to “Uninstall” Bad Memories From the Brain

by Liz Colville

It may be possible to unseat scary or otherwise negative memories from our brains in the same way that they get seated there in the first place. As Scientific American writes, fear occurs in the almonds of our brains — the twin amygdalae. Here, an experience undergoes the process by which it is rendered negative by our noggins:

amygdala neurons undergo specific chemical and structural changes that form an imprint, or memory, of the sensory image that accompanies a particular threat…

In other words, a “previously unremarkable mugger’s face now evokes terror.”

So how do we get them out of there? More complicated, but scientists are on the case. Studying mice by training them to associate a sound with an electric shock, two scientists at Johns Hopkins learned that in the days after this fearful association was made, the mice brains kind of shuffled glutamate receptors, which are the sensors that help the brain form memories, in and out of their amygdalae in a repetitive process that “seemed to go nowhere.” The scientists believe that the continual replacement of these “temporary, readily removable parts” could help erase a bad memory soon after it’s been formed. This research backs up earlier studies showing that a bad memory’s effects can be reversed in the one-day window after it lodges in there.

So, “Our fears may come to be unwieldy and persistent, but they start their lives in a physically vulnerable state.” As long as therapies can come into play “at this critical time” early on in the life of a bad memory, good news for anyone who’s dealt with violence or other traumas. Three cheers for science!