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Shock Therapy can Erase Bad Memories, Researchers Say

Dec 24, 2013 09:08 AM EST
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Electroconvulsive (ECT) or electroshock therapy has had a bit of bad reputation as it involves zapping the brain with electric current via electrode pads placed on patients' scalp. However, the therapy can be used to wipe-out unpleasant memories, a new research says.

The research, conducted by Marijn Kroes, at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands and colleagues, is a reminiscent of the plot in the movie- Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Nature reported.

Just like the movie, researchers found that exposing the brain to short bursts of ECT could be used to erase sad memories.

Using electrical stimulation to treat depression and treat mental disorders isn't a new idea. Donald Lewis and his colleagues published a study in 1968 that claimed memories can be erased (at least in rats) using electric shocks.

A report published last year in Nature Neuroscience on deep-brain stimulation (DBS) treatment for depression had also found this treatment effective in helping people fight the condition. Another study, conducted by researchers in U.S. and Brazil had found that zapping the brain with electric current could be used to treat depression.

Disrupting Memory

The research rests in the idea that memories aren't permanent and that the brain constantly takes them out of 'storage box' and reconsolidates them.

The phenomenon is quite similar to the 'telephone game,' where people take turns to whisper a message in next person's ears. By the time the message reaches the last person, it is drastically altered.

The present study was conducted on 42 people who were prescribed ECT for major depression. Researchers showed all patients two slide-shows; one of a car accident and the other of physical assault.

Next, researchers asked the patients to recall events from one of the slide-shows. Patients' were then given ECT.

A day later, participants were asked to fill a questionnaire about the two events showed in the slide-shows. Researchers found that patients' memory, of the event that they had recalled, was hazy while the unrecalled memory was still vivid.

"Our results provide evidence for reconsolidation of emotional episodic memories in humans," researchers wrote.

According to Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, the study doesn't prove that the technique could be useful in dealing with personal memories, which could be more complex. These memories could involve more than one sense and could be difficult to target than the memory of a slide-show seen at a lab, Time reported.

"I think it's interesting as a proof of concept, but I don't think it's necessarily going to be a robust treatment because it's so invasive," Elizabeth Phelps, professor of psychology and neural science at New York University told Time. Both Greely and Phelps aren't part of the current study.

The study is published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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