Uncovering traumatic memories in the brain

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CHICAGO -- Figuring out how traumatic memories hide in the brain. The finding may help retrieve hidden memories. Doctors say they now know how to unlock the door to suppressed memories.

Northwestern Medicine scientists have pinpointed a way to retrieve memories hidden in the brain. When a child or adult experiences trauma they store those memories. But even hidden deep in the brain, the memories can cause damage in the form of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. Now in lab studies with animals doctors say they have figured out how people render certain memories inaccessible. Think of the process like AM and FM radio bands.

Dr. Jelena Radulovic, Northwestern Medicine researcher: “This is as if normal memories are processed as FM band and hidden trauma memories are processed in AM band. So we found a drug which can induce a brain state which is similar to AM frequencies, and when we put the brain back in the same state using the same drug then we see that the mice can remember their stress-related memory.”

It`s a protective mechanism, particularly for children who suffer child abuse early in life. It`s thought to be a helpful mechanism to protect them from overwhelming stress. But problems occur when it becomes a common strategy for coping with stressful events. For some patients it is important to bring the memories back up, for others it`s too dangerous. A trained psychiatrist has to figure out which patients are ready to face their problems.