Curing PTSD By Erasing Memories?

What do you think?


In her lab, Josselyn is working to find a way to delete, or at least dampen, the fear associated with traumatic memory.

Current research says a memory is located in various parts of the brain. The neurons, or brain cells, that are encoded with the fear are in one part of the brain while other parts of the memory are elsewhere.

Josselyn, working with rodents in the lab, is developing ways of locating the group of neurons that hold the fear. Once she has that, then she hopes to target just those cells chemically and disrupt their ability to keep that fear encoded.

“We’re not there yet,” she says, but “we’re certainly getting close in rodents.”

“I think one day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to delete a memory.”

And there is an ethical hurdle. Some ethicists believe that deleting memories deletes a vital part of a person’s identity.

“It’s those emotions that tell you who I am,” says Dr. Francoise Baylis, who holds the Canada Research Chair in bioethics and philosophy at Dalhousie University in Halifax. 

Baylis cautions that deleting even the worst of a person’s memories can interfere with the sense of self.

She does not want people to suffer, but she says learning how to deal with the fear and anxiety can produce strength.



Also check out: Hit Delete, radio discussion on the above issue.


25 thoughts on “Curing PTSD By Erasing Memories?

  1. Pretty amazing stuff, but I want my memories. Some are good or neutral, many are unpleasant, but they belong to me and make me (us) who I am. It is the fear part that I’d like to have minimized. I’d love to see if they can take the fear away not my memories!!!

    I must say it is interesting to find out what is going on in the medical fields. I wish they’d ask the sick people what they needed most and then work on those. Maybe they have but it seems if they listened to us at all, things would be different.

    Wouldn’t it be cool if they could just put a probe in the brain to the part that causes outlandish fear and make it a healthier fear? Kinda go in like they do for brain aneurysms with a thin wire and cauterize it!

    • I agree with you. Most times its our memories of fear and pain that will keep us safe in the future but clearly the brain can get carried away.

      Ps. Read the introduction of Quiet and it was so good!!! First chapter is “How Extroversion Became the Cultural Ideal.”

      I think I would be an ambivert (mentioned in the intro) which means you’re in the middle.

  2. Thanks, however there is nothing scarier to me than going into my self and starting to alter parts of me. The problem is that I am assuming that all of my memories are housed in my brain. I am learning on this journey that most of the energy around those memories are housed in my body. The piece did not even talk about the somatics of trauma.

  3. I have PTSD. I would not want the memories erased even though they are awful. I can’t even imagine what it would “look” like in my own story of myself if those memories were gone because that situation was the catalyst for a LOT of things in my life. My life would be unexplainable with that gap. It isn’t like a time machine where you can get rid of the event (if only…). Now, getting if you can sever the memory from the freak-out, that’s different.

    • I think a time machine would be a better option because then you can actively play a role in changing your future if you chose so.

      After responding to a few comments from other readers I’m realizing how creepy and sci-fi, dystopian, this kind of research is!

  4. I doubt that this would actually cure PTSD. The brain has redundancy and plasticity that we’re not even close to understanding, so I doubt that current or near-future technology could successfully erase a memory. And even if it could, the brain would still react in its habitual patterns–those are caused by memories but eventually operate independently of the memories. Plenty of people experience PTSD without any conscious awareness/memory of the traumas that caused it, particularly in cases of repeated childhood trauma, and that suggests that simply erasing memories wouldn’t cure PTSD.

    And speaking here as someone who has lost many memories as the result of medical treatment (ECT), it’s not something I would’ve chosen if I’d known I’d lose my memories, even the bad ones. Granted, ECT can’t target specific memories, but I lost most of my memories of five entire years. I’d rather remember all the bad things that happened and deal with that because when you lose your memory, you lose your sense of self.

    Maybe something like this would be effective for single-event PTSD shortly after the trauma (before thought patterns have a chance to form), but even if they could precisely target and erase only specific memories, I don’t imagine it would be a viable treatment for PTSD.

    • Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment! It has me thinking…

      I have been told by friends and a few professionals that I display emotional reactions consistent with PTSD. Like you mentioned though, my reactions are all done without conscious awareness, it’s a reaction that just happens, there is no physical memory (unless I actually put the effort into thinking about it). To fix something like that you need to do work emotionally.

      Also, you mention that you have lost memories. Can assume that, that means you just have blank periods of time where as it’s almost as if nothing happened? I would like that would be disorienting and depending on the trauma memory you would be trying to erase that could be a large chunk of your life left blank. Would some science fiction techniques would have to come in and replace the memories with happier ones? But then isn’t your life a lie?

      I know we want to understand the brain but I feel like we need to stop thinking we can control it and manipulate it like this. Did we not learn anything from lobotomies?

      • Yes, for much of the time I lost, it’s just blank. I know some biographical details, like where I was living during that time, and I have a few event memories. Sometimes if someone gives me a bunch of details, I can vaguely recall particular incidents, but most of it’s blank.

        Interestingly, though, I do remember how I felt about people I knew during this time but not always why. One time, my boyfriend and I ran into a mutual acquaintance from that time. I remembered the guy, and I knew I strongly disliked him, but I had no idea why. I had to ask my boyfriend, “Why do I dislike Joseph?” He told me. I couldn’t remember the incident he described, but it was consistent with something that would typically lead me to dislike someone.

        I imagine that similar things could happen if you tried to intentionally destroy memories. People would still feel and act certain ways, but they would have no idea why. I think that would make me feel crazier than reactions I can clearly identify the triggers for.

      • Emotional memory. That’s what I would say I have. It’s not exactly the same as what happened to result in your memory loss but there are many occasions where I can’t remember at all something that was said to me but I remember how I felt and what I did about.

        Stories like yours I hope are being told to these researchers. I would think it’s amazing evidence that their theory is wrong and not looking at trauma as a whole or the person as a whole.

      • The thing with a lot of researchers, particularly clinical researchers, is that their focus is so narrow that there’s no room for stories like mine. I don’t know the criteria for this particular study, but I’ve done a lot of research into human clinical trials. Their inclusionary/exclusionary criteria are so narrow I don’t know how they find participants or claim that their results will hold for a broader set of people. And the hyperfocus on quantitative data means there’s no space for stories.

      • You’re right. Our stories are not seen as good “data”.

        I guess the more I think about it, the more I hope this doesn’t happen. Not the way it’s being presently currently anyways.

      • wow, that is about the smartest thing i have heard in a long time about clinical studies. seriously, who are these researchers! they are the, “they say” group. have you ever heard someone say, “they say a little coffee is good for you!” or “they say exercise 20 minutes a day . . .” ~~ WHO ARE “THEY” anyway!?!
        thanks nb (you are somebody!)

    • To “Nobody”,

      “I’d rather remember all the bad things that happened and deal with that because when you lose your memory, you lose your sense of self.”

      Very perfectly said imo. Thank you.

  5. My research indicates that original interest was to help soldiers erase memories of the horrors of war. Sounds positive in that application, but I’m not sure how much I trust anyone whose goal is creating better fighting machines. (PTSD research is a good use of some of their budget, anyway)

    With recent move and ongoing phone nonsense, I haven’t had time to research much about HOW new chemical intervention works – but prelim says it blocks the consolidation phase of the memory process. But it’s not like we can pick “one from column B” and leave the rest intact – right?

    Similar problem with electroshock. Depression has to be excessively disabling – potentially life threatening – before a lot of docs I agree with recommend it.

    Haven’t formed an opinion yet, but it is clearly a double-edged sword!!!

    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

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