The research, published in Current Biology, is one of the first comprehensive characterisations of poorly-formed memories and may offer a framework for science to explore different therapeutic approaches to fear, memory and anxiety disorders. It may also have implications for accuracy of some witness testimony.
Senior author Professor Bryce Vissel, from the UTS Centre for Neuroscience & Regenerative Medicine, said his team used novel behavioural, molecular and computational techniques to investigate memories that have not been well-formed, and how the brain deals with them.
He explained, “For memories to be useful, they have to have been well-formed during an event – that is, they have to accurately reflect what actually happened.
“However, in the real world many memories are likely to be inaccurate – especially in situations where the experience was brief, sudden or highly emotional, as can often occur during trauma. Inaccurate memories can also occur when the memory is poorly encoded, potentially as a result of subtle differences in how each person processes memory or because of disease like Alzheimer’s or dementia.”
Lead author Dr Raphael Zinn said, “Our findings are exciting because they show that memory updating mechanisms that become activated after recall can refine and improve memories.
“Surprisingly, we found that the same process can, in some circumstances, lead to incorrect updating of the memory. We also identify one molecular mechanism, called reconsolidation, which could be mediating this process.
“This suggests we might be able to target such updating mechanisms therapeutically to treat memory and anxiety disorders where memory formation is poor.”
The 6-year study shows that the same mechanism that updates poor memories can also severely distort them if it occurs in the wrong situation.
Professor Vissel said these findings could be useful for understanding memory fallibility in everyday life; fear and memory disorders, such as PTSD; and situations where accurate recall is critical, like witness testimony in courtrooms.
“While these findings come from studies in mice, this research is likely to apply across many animals with developed brains, including other mammals and humans. They might also tie in with dementias, where the main memory-related problem is an apparent inability to form accurate new memories.
“Why is memory fallible? Our study suggests that when an individual forms a poor memory, the brain reactivates the memory in a similar situation and then updates it. Sometimes a poorly formed memory can be wrongly reactivated in a similar, but irrelevant, situation. The brain may then update the memory from that irrelevant situation, causing the memory to become incorrect – rather than creating a new and entirely different memory of the new situation.”
This study was led by the University of Technology Sydney in collaboration with UCLA scientists Frank Krasne and Michael Fanselow.
Key examples of how the CNRM discoveries may be relevant to humans
Fear and Anxiety, including PTSD: There are many models of how PTSD occurs. This study reinforces a model in which disorder emerges because an individual who experienced a fearful event did not adequately encode the context in which it occurred.
This may have happened because there was not sufficient time, or because of the individual’s unique brain make-up. This would result in subsequent fear in a range of similar environments and failure to adequately reduce that fear when the danger has gone.
Importantly, however, our model also suggests that memory updating mechanisms could be harnessed to overcome some of the symptomatology of disorders like PTSD using brain plasticity.
This study shows that poorly formed memories are unstable and subject to distortion. This has implications for understanding what occurs to memory in dementia patients and how and why confusion occurs.
Furthermore, the model created by CNRM scientists may provide ideas on how we may be able to help patients with memory disorders strengthen and retain memory. The study may provide a framework for more research which is required.
This study suggests that, if a person observes a shocking or terrible event without enough time to encode the memory correctly, subsequent experiences can become encoded into the memory after it is recalled without the person knowing. This could potentially provide one mechanism for false witness testimonies and confessions.
Contacts and sources:
University of Technology Sydney
Publication: Maladaptive Properties of Context-Impoverished Memories. Raphael Zinn, Jessica Leake, Franklin B. Krasne, Laura H. Corbit, Michael S. Fanselow, Bryce Vissel. Current Biology, 2020; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.040
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