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Brain's 'Updating Mechanisms' May Create False Memories

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A new study shows that the brain can update or ‘edit’ poorly-formed memories with the wrong information, potentially causing confusion, anxiety disorders like PTSD and, in extreme cases, false memories.

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.

CNRM memory
Credit: University of Technology Sydney

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.

Dementia and learning disorders: Learning disorders such as dementia are associated with an inability to fully encode memory. The reasons for this, and the consequences of it, are poorly understood at the basic neuroscience level.

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.

Legal: There is evidence that interrogation and suggestion, both of which force individuals to recall their memories of events while being presented with new information, can distort the memory of the witnessed event.

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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Total 2 comments
  • dave42

    This breaks down to either a materialist view of human cognition or an spiritual view of human expression.
    The AMA repeatedly reinforces the concept of all energy of the human body being drawn from the chemistry and physical mechanisms of the body.
    The most recent confirmations of a completely different concept are frustrating those efforts to rationalize the anomalies.
    One are I am in intense study of is the expression of stem cell differentiation.
    The current mechanical material explanations of why transplanted organs , Skin , Hair and Stem cells express their new location rather than the donor site fall short of reality.
    Simply when a pubic hair is transplanted t the scalp it becomes scalp- hair, when a dark pigmented human and is transplanted to a light skinned person the hand changes color and gender appearance.
    The alternate theory is one that is holding up to scrutiny much better in clinical environments.
    The theory states that there is a external force or energy that the DNA modulates to form complex “Sounds” (groups of frequencies) these sounds harmonize to produce a physical scaffold that alters quantum probabilities. This grouping of the sounds is defined as the measurable quantum body that is made up of the full spectrum of frequencies. The physical mater is coalesced onto this field and energy potentials are conducted through electromagnetic , chemical, biophotonic and actual quantum particle observation collapse into mater.
    The science explains and accurately predicts STEM CELL differentiation.

    SO as the old saying goes we are actually spiritual beings creating a physical experience rather than physical beings experiencing a spiritual anomaly.

    Materialist science has been obsolete as far back as Schrodinger and the concept of quantum uncertainty.

    So if physical trace of biological memory in the form of neuropathway formation and scar tissue that has formed is different than what may be accepted by a small self authoritative group it is immediately assumed that the memory is false and their concept is true.
    The fact is that memory of events or specific things have been shared that are in direct conflict with the authoritative.
    An example is the distinct and accurate memories of religious edicts and traditions, In one very popular timeline a large number of people remember the tradition of Christianity that the “Lion will lay down with the Lamb” there is a large amount of religious artwork associated with this belief, however when one looks at this current timelines version of the story we find a Wolf and a lamb and a Hippo and Jaguar different than what we know to be true. The claim that the memory of events different than the current timeline is false memory denies the underlying anomaly. Another example is “Luke I am Your Father” now the History shows “No I am Your Father”. Or Mirror, Mirror becoming Magic, Mirror. Or My mother says Life is LIKE a box of Chocolates.
    All these examples fall into what is called the Mandela effect Labeled by materialists as false memory.
    But again if the memories exist than the physical cause of the memories has to have occurred.

    I know this first hand as I have a large Skull fracture to left of my sagital suture and a 5 inch scar on my forehead. The fracture can be felt under the skin and the scar is visible externally, also shows on xray and MRI. I remember when I received this wound and the recovery. There is however no record anywhere of my injury or of any treatment for it. Current medical estimates are that the injury took place 30 years ago and there is visible signs of cosmetic surgery and staples in mu skull. My wife and I have been married since 1987 and she has no memory of the injury of the scar prior to two years ago. Photos including my driver license do not show the scar prior to 2 years ago. With this in mind my doctors are at a loss to explain why without incident the injury and scar would present in the last two years with physical signs of a 30 year old injury.

    Materialists have been stifled by a lack of science t explain the effect and have been using circular logic to produce a causal agent.

    The underlying issue is the claim to authority if the past can have different paths then the knowledge of the past becomes less important than the understanding of the present. If a person has full understanding of the present because they perceive self evident truth than no memory or mastery of an agreed upon history can have dominion.

    What we are experiencing is a convergence of multiple probabilities as spiritual entities having a physical experience.
    Your authority should be drawn not from memory but from understanding of the self apparent truth in the present.

  • raburgeson

    Long term memory does not update.

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