Painful memories can be a heavy burden, sometimes triggering emotional, mental, and/or physical stress. But with the help of an electroencephalography (EEG) — a test used to detect brain abnormalities — scientists soon hope to be able to erase such painful reminders, according to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience. But first, we need to learn more about how memory recall works.

Normally, an EEG is used to detect brain tumors, head injuries, and epilepsy by tracking and recording brain wave patterns. But recently, some researchers have been curious to see if this technology can shed light on other problems that affect the brain. For example, Medscape cited scientists have performed EEG testing on dementia patients in an attempt to monitor and improve brain function. Since dementia is marked by memory loss, it may not be so far-fetched to think it could help us understand our everyday memory process.

So in the present study, scientists presented everyday objects to  25 female students, and asked them to recall them later. They found that students could recall objects 100-200 milliseconds faster than previously thought possible. It’s been suggested it can take up to a half a second to recall memories.

"Our findings might be relevant for patients being haunted by their memories, like those suffering post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)," Dr. Simon Hanslmayr, a neuroscientist from the University of Birmingham, told Medical Daily.

PTSD affects approximately 8 million people annually, while 7 to 8 percent of the population in America will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. It usually presents itself after someone is severely hurt, has witnessed a traumatic event, or believes they are in danger. Certain people may be more prone to PTSD, including new moms and war veterans.

The types of treatment available are cognitive therapy, where a therapist aims to understand the underlying cause of PTSD in order for his or her patient to overcome it; exposure therapy, where the goal is to desensitize the sufferer from the event by overexposing them to the painful stimulant; and antidepressant medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

However, these treatments don't guarantee recovery and don't always work long-term; so erasing the entire memory could be a useful and effective treatment. Hanslmayr said that the goal of this study wasn't just to recall memories quicker, but to further explore the basic science of memory. He hopes that it can be a jump off point for further research.

"These results are preliminary, of course, but we’re hopeful that the findings could be useful in a number of ways," Hanslmayr said. "There are a number of instances where being able to intervene and target traumatic memories would be beneficial."

Looking further into the brain's hippocampus — the part of the brain responsible for memory retrieval — is likely to be an important part of Hanslmayr's future research, too.

"We're hypothesizing, but maybe there are other brain regions that are involved in memory loss and we’re interested in exploring that idea," he said.

Source: Waldhauser T, Verena B, Simon H. Episodic memory retrieval functionally relies on very rapid reactivation of sensory information. Journal of Neuroscience. 2016.