Researchers at Stanford claim they've figured out how to erase the traumatic memories of mice while they sleep bringing them one step closer to their goal of ending PTSD for humans. Apparently a prescription memory-eraser could even be on the way. Are we closer to an Eternal Sunshine moment than we think?
The conventional treatment for stress and anxiety caused by traumatic events can be gruelling for the patient, barbaric, even. They've simply got to recall the drama over and over and over in front of a shrink until, eventually, they learn how to deal with it — and there's no guarantee the patent won't relapse.
Nature reports the research of a Stanford team that found a way to replicate this therapy passively in sleeping mice. First, the researchers trained mice to fear the smell of jasmine by exposing them to the smell and then zapping them electricity. Once the mice were thoroughly traumatised, the researchers went about un-traumatizing the mice in their sleep.
One batch of mice received traditional therapy: They were exposed to the smell while they slept without getting shocked, and eventually got over the fear — temporarily at least. These mice, like PTSD humans tended to relapse.
The researchers treated the other batch of mice by tampering with their brain chemistry. Nature explains:
In other mice, Rolls administered a drug to block protein production in the basolateral amygdala — a brain area associated with storage of fearful memories - just before the animals went to sleep. The researchers then exposed the sleeping mice to repeated odor puffs alone. Upon waking, these animals showed reduced fear responses to amyl acetate [the smell chemical] that carried over even into new environments.
Holy smokes that's crazy! Imagine a world in which the tedium and pain of therapy could be replaced with a simple pill. The world would be such a happier place. Unfortunately, the drug used in the study isn't safe for humans, but it turns out that existing anxiety meds could potentially be used the same way. It seems the solution to an old psychiatric puzzle might have been lying under our noses for decades. [Nature]
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