Reconsolidation and PTSD

We have discussed reconsolidation of long term memory before (for example here and here). But there is a remarkable new study that I wanted to bring to your attention. The journal paper is here and a good summary in the New Scientist is here.

Memory of a traumatic event becomes consolidated within hours. Intrusive memories can then flash back repeatedly into the mind’s eye and cause distress. We investigated whether reconsolidation—the process during which memories become malleable when recalled—can be blocked using a cognitive task and whether such an approach can reduce these unbidden intrusions. We predicted that reconsolidation of a reactivated visual memory of experimental trauma could be disrupted by engaging in a visuospatial task that would compete for visual working memory resources. We showed that intrusive memories were virtually abolished by playing the computer game Tetris following a memory reactivation task 24 hr after initial exposure to experimental trauma.

My Take

What they found is that they could have people with traumatic memories play Tetris and it would prevent the memories from intruding when they were not wanted – a common problem with post-traumatic stress memories. Playing Tetris doesn’t erase the memory, or even make it harder to recall when you want to. What it does is interfere with visual and spatial working memory – exactly the modalities that are mostly recruited when recalling episodic events from long term memory. Essentially, Tetris takes over the person’s current working memory capacity and crowds out the traumatic memory.

For a quick review of reconsolidation – this is the process (managed by the hippocampus) in which long term memories are brought to consciousness and then when you are done with them, put back in long term memory. I have anthropomorphized this a bit, but you get the picture. What makes reconsolidation interesting is that we introduce errors every time we do it – some aspects of our current situation get inserted.

There are two places for the Tetris therapy (my label, not theirs) to be used.

  1. If you can use it immediately after the traumatic event, perhaps in the hospital after an accident or something like that, it might weaken the development of the long term memory in the first place by keeping visual and spatial working memory busy. This is in their 2009 study.
  2. If the person has a problem with rumination and intrusive memory of the event, they can grab a game of Tetris on their smart phone whenever they feel an episode on the horizon (or even after it starts). The parts of their brain that would be ruminating on the traumatic event get pulled into Tetris and out of that memory. Over time, this could weaken the memory’s strength, introduce errors, and reduce its traumatic impact. This is in the new study.

Your Turn

So here are my questions for you today:

  • If you are relatively familiar with the processes of reconsolidation, working memory, and long term memory, does this resonate? Can you see how the interference might arise and how it could help?
  • If you are familiar with traumatic memory (or have family or friends suffering from it), does this seem promising? Are you willing to give it a try?

We look forward to your comments.

Image Credit: Damian Yerrick

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