For many, the idea of deleting difficult and painful memories sounds like a dream come true, but a recent study published in Current Biology suggests scientists are surprisingly close to making this dream a reality. The researchers were able to erase memories from the brains of snails, which they say is the first step in doing so for humans.

In the study, researchers from Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and McGill University explained how they were able to erase both associative and non-associative memories in the brains of snails by blocking one of two different types of protein kinase M (PKM) molecules, IFL Science reported. Though snails are clearly different from ourselves, the study authors explain that this research could lay the foundation for doing the same in humans since we use similar molecules to form and retain memories.  And erasing them in people could have far-reaching medical and psychological applications, especially if they can do so while preserving their normal memory of the past.

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The researchers stimulated two sensory neurons that were connected by a single motor neuron in sea snails in order to produce two different types of memories. The first memory was an associative memory. These are memories in which you associate a certain object, sound, or smell with a memory because it was there when the memory was originally formed, similar to how the smell of smoke can trigger memories of fire for some survivors. The second type of memory was a non-associative memory, which describes something that reminds you of another event because it's indirectly related.

"Memory erasure has the potential to alleviate PTSD and anxiety disorders by removing the non-associative memory that causes the maladaptive physiological response," said study co-author Jiangyuan Hu, IFLScience reported. "By isolating the exact molecules that maintain non-associative memory, we may be able to develop drugs that can treat anxiety without affecting the patient's normal memory of past events."

The team was able to weaken brain connections associated with both these types of memories, which resulted in the memories being completely erased.

Researchers have been studying how to erase human memories for some time. We all have some type of unpleasant memory we’d like to erase, whether it's a bad breakup or the single most embarrassing moment of your life, but this study could have important applications for those living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other forms of trauma. 

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault. Symptoms can vary both over time and from patient to patient, but generally include behaviors such as avoiding certain situations, intrusive memories, changes in mood and thinking, and changes in physical and emotional reactions.

The condition is usually treated with psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both, but success can vary greatly among patients. The team hope their findings can help pave the way for more effective PTSD treatments to better help the estimated 7.8 percent of Americans who will experience the condition at some point in their lives.

Source: Hu J, Ferguson L, Adler K, et al. Selective Erasure of Distinct Forms of Long-Term Synaptic Plasticity Underlying Different Forms of Memory in the Same Postsynaptic Neuron. Current Biology . 2017

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