Brain's Memory Suppression Probed

With Practice, People May Be Able to Intentionally Suppress Specific Memories

From the WebMD Archives

July 12, 2007 -- It may be possible to learn how to suppress specific memories, and that might help treat emotionally distressing memories, a new study shows.

The study comes from researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder, including cognitive psychology graduate student Brendan Depue, MA.

"Our findings may have implications for therapeutic approaches to disorders involving the inability to suppress emotionally distressing memories and thoughts, including PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), phobias, ruminative depression/anxiety, and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder)," Depue's team writes in the journal Science.

Depue and colleagues acknowledge that memory suppression and the manipulation of memory have been very controversial topics in psychology for the last century.

They studied memory suppression in 16 women aged 19-29. By memory suppression, they mean the deliberate, conscious choice to suppress certain memories.

First, the researchers showed the women images of other women's faces. The faces, displayed in pairs, depicted neutral or negative facial expressions.

The women memorized the picture pairs. Then the researchers shuffled the pictures and showed the jumbled images to the women.

In some cases, the researchers asked the women to remember which face originally went with which image.

But in other instances, they challenged the women to suppress those memories and deliberately not recall the original picture pairs. Memory suppression took some practice, but it worked.

Meanwhile, the women got their brains scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The brain scans showed that different areas of the brain were active when the women remembered the facial pairs, compared with when the women suppressed those memories.

The memory suppression technique needs refinement, but once that happens, "manipulating emotional memory might be an exciting and fruitful development in future clinical research," write Depue and colleagues.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 12, 2007


SOURCES: Depue, B. Science, July 13, 2007; vol 317: pp 215-219. News release, University of Colorado at Boulder. News release, Science.

© 2007 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.