Researchers are currently experimenting with ways to erase distressing memories with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), also known as electroshock therapy. Mental trauma, psychiatric disorders and addiction are some of the possible therapeutic uses. How does it work? Scientists once believed memory was permanently stored in our brains and although forgotten or replaced by new memory, could be reactivated at any time. A process known as reconsolidation results in memory that has stabilized and therefore become ingrained. New findings are showing some specific memories can possibly be erased, while others crucial memories are left intact. The hope is that those with traumatic memories can have them erased to the point that they no longer cause problematic symptoms.
A recent study was released in the Journal of Nature Neuroscience. In the study, 39 patients who were being treated for severe depression with ECT were randomly assigned one of three groups, A, B, or C. They watched two distressing stories and then were asked to remember details about just one story in an effort to reactivate a specific memory. Group A was given ECT and tested a day later, and “they recalled most details about the particular story for which their memories hadn’t been reactivated. However, their recall of the other story was extremely poor.” Group B was given ECT and they were tested immediately. “Their recall of both stories was intact. It suggests that it takes time to impair memory.” Group C patients didn’t receive ECT and acted as a control group. “When tested, their memories of the stories were actually enhanced. That suggests that it requires both reactivation and ECT to prevent reconsolidation and thereby disrupt memories in people.” “It’s a pretty strong effect. We observed it in every subject,” said Marijn Kroes, neuroscientist at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands and lead author of the study.
Much more work and research will need to be done before ECT should be considered a safe or effective therapeutic tool. A small but significant number of patients die as a result of seizures cause by ECT, and in cases where anesthesia and muscle relaxants were not used and patients were strapped to the gurney, some sustained broken bones. The long-term loss of memory and cognitive ability is a widely recognized effect of electroconvulsive therapy and somewhat shockingly, the first long-term study into these effects was not conducted until 2007.
ECT is definitely not, in my opinion at this time, safe to use for trauma or addiction. There is no clear proof whether the memory erasure is temporary or permanent or that the technique will work for real-world traumatic memories. Much more research will need to be done to prove that this tool can overcome its deficits and prove worthwhile.
“It’s a clever demonstration and could provide a new tool for us clinically,” stated Karim Nader, neuroscientist at McGill University in Canada, who was not involved with the original study. Other studies are currently underway that will offer other and better options in the future. For now, we’ll see what researchers find.