Even though Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is triggered by a stressful incident, it is really a disease of memory. The problem isn’t the trauma—it’s that the trauma can’t be forgotten. Most memories, and their associated emotions, fade with time. But PTSD memories remain horribly intense, bleeding into the present and ruining the future.
Neuroscientists have a molecular explanation of how and why memories change. In fact, their definition of memory has broadened to encompass not only the cliché cinematic scenes from childhood but also the persisting mental loops of illnesses like PTSD and addiction—and even pain disorders like neuropathy. Unlike most brain research, the field of memory has actually developed simpler explanations. Whenever the brain wants to retain something, it relies on just a handful of chemicals. Even more startling, an equally small family of compounds could turn out to be a universal eraser of history, a pill that we could take whenever we wanted to forget anything.
And researchers have found one of these compounds.
In the very near future, the act of remembering will become a choice.
1. Pick a memory.
It has to be something deeply implanted in the brain, a long-term memory that has undergone a process called consolidation—a restructuring of neural connections.
2. Recall requires neural connections by protein synthesis.
To remember something, your brain synthesizes new proteins to stabilize circuits of neural connections. To date, researchers have identified one such protein, called PKMzeta. Before trying to erase the targeted memory, researchers would ensure that it was ensconsed by having the patient write down an account of the event or retell it aloud several times.
3. Nuke the memory.
To delete the memory, researchers would administer a drug that blocks PKMzeta and then ask the patient to recall the event again. Because the protein required to reconsolidate the memory will be absent, the memory will cease to exist. Neuroscientists think they’ll be able to target the specific memory by using drugs that bind selectively to receptors found only in the correct area of the brain.
4. Everything else is fine.
If the drug is selective enough and the memory precise enough, everything else in the brain should be unaffected and remain as correct—or incorrect—as ever.