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Exploring the Potential to Eliminate Traumatic Memories

  • May 28, 2020
  • Patients and Families, Trauma

Erasing or manipulating memories sounds like science fiction, but researchers are moving closer to the ability to target and erase traumatic memories.

Forming memories of fear is helpful and necessary. Our survival depends on detecting and avoiding both new and past threats, noted Steve Maren, Ph.D., with the Institute for Neuroscience at Texas A&M University, in a recent presentation for the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.1 But traumatic memories can lead to difficulties, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident or violent personal assault. An estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may avoid trauma reminders or withdraw socially. (See more information on PTSD.)

PTSD is treated in several different ways, including cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT) that seek to reduce traumatic memories. One form of CBT, prolonged exposure (PE) therapy, involves repeatedly confronting fears in a safe setting. It is often accompanied with relaxation techniques. The process suppresses the fear memory, but does not erase it and the memories can resurface.

New advances in the neurobiology of fear memory are leading to potential new approaches to PTSD treatment, including the erasure of traumatic memories, Marin noted. Researchers have identified points in which there is opportunity for changing or manipulating a memory. One is shortly after the memory is created; another is when a memory is recalled later. The recall process typically fosters long-term storage of memories. However, the process takes time and during this limited time, the original memory may be modified either by the presenting new information or with medication.2 In addition to research on the possibility to erase traumatic memories, researchers are exploring the potential to eliminate drug cravings in people with substance use disorders.

This research is still in early stages and faces many scientific challenges in addition to a range of concerns about ethical issues and what it would mean to manipulate or erase human memories.

“Science fiction notions of altering problematic memories are starting to become reality as techniques emerge through which unique memories can be edited,” conclude Elizabeth A. Phelps, Ph.D. and Stefan G. Hofmann, Ph.D., in a recent review of research. However, they also caution that, ”the science of memory editing is more complicated and nuanced than fiction,” and “just like in the movies, we may find that if we succeed in easily editing human memories, there could be unexpected consequences for how we think about memory and its role in defining who we are.”

Marin also noted potential ethical issues and said that while new tools are beginning to allow selective targeting and manipulation of memory, “translation to clinical practice must proceed with caution.”


  1. Maren, S. Can Traumatic Memories be Erased? (Webinar), April 14, 2020, Brain and Behavior Research Foundation
  2. Treanor, M. et al. Can Memories of Traumatic Experiences or Addiction Be Erased or Modified? A Critical Review of Research on the Disruption of Memory Reconsolidation and Its Applications. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2017 Mar;12(2):290-305. doi: 10.1177/1745691616664725.
  3. Walsh, KH, et. al. Modulation of Naturalistic Maladaptive Memories Using Behavioural and Pharmacological Reconsolidation-Interfering Strategies: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Clinical and 'Sub-Clinical' Studies. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2018 Sep;235(9):2507-2527
  4. Phelps, EA, Hofmann, SG. Memory editing from science fiction to clinical practiceReview in Nature, Aug. 2019

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