NYU Researchers Develop Method for Blocking Fear Memories

Four Academy members in the psychology and neural science departments report technique in Nature.

Published January 15, 2010

Researchers in the New York University Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science, Daniela Schiller, Elizabeth Phelps, Marie Monfils, and Joseph LeDoux, have developed a noninvasive technique to block the return of fear memories in humans. The technique, reported in the December 9 edition of Nature, may change how memory storage processes are viewed and could lead to new ways to treat anxiety disorders.

The four Academy members and colleagues showed that reactivating fear memories in humans allows them to be updated with non-fearful information, a finding that was previously demonstrated in rodents. As a result, fear responses no longer return.

The experiment was conducted over three days: the memory was formed in the first day, rewritten on the second day, and tested for fear on the third day. However, to examine how enduring this effect is, a portion of the participants was tested again about a year later. Even after this period of time, the fear memory did not return in those subjects who had extinction during the re-consolidation window. These results suggest that the old fear memory was changed from its original form and that this change persists over time.

“Our research suggests that during the lifetime of a memory there are windows of opportunity where it becomes susceptible to be permanently changed,” says Schiller. “By understanding the dynamics of memory we might, in the long run, open new avenues of treatment for disorders that involve abnormal emotional memories.”

Phelps added, “Previous attempts to disrupt fear memories have relied on pharmacological interventions. Our results suggest such invasive techniques may not be necessary. Using a more natural intervention that captures the adaptive purpose of re-consolidation allows a safe way to prevent the return of fear.”