It's still a long way off, but new fear research could help people with PTSD

Albino mouse
Albino mouseCourtesy Ikayama
What are you afraid of? Maybe spiders or heights, but your fear is probably only triggered by the sight of a spider or actually being somewhere high. Everybody experiences fear, but for some people, fearful memories can be triggered by harmless sounds. An example people are especially aware of these days is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where a person hearing a car backfiring might recall a battlefield trauma.

Researchers at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children hope their recent findings could someday help people with PTSD. They erased the association between a fearful memory and a trigger sound in mice. So, in this case, the fearful memory was being given an electric shock and the trigger sound was an otherwise harmless tone. The scientists didn’t erase the memory, just the association with the tone.

Dr. Michael Salter, head of the Neurosciences & Mental Health program at the hospital explained:

You wouldn't want to completely get rid of all aspects of a memory. To help people with these kinds of post-traumatic stress disorders . . . you might just want to minimize the emotional association between the memory and the highly disruptive and negative emotions that people have in this context.

To erase the association between the tone and the fear in the mice, the scientists targeted the brain cells that store fearful memories. Specifically, they knocked out neurons in the amygdala that express the gene, CREB. By eliminating these neurons, they disrupted the formation of the fearful memory association.

To learn more about fear, visit “Goosebumps! The Science of Fear” exhibit at the Science Museum through May 3.

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