“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were,” wrote Proust. When the past fades, it seems the truth is gone for good. But, as the narrator of Swann's Way discovers, memories can lie dormant for a long time just waiting for a chance to resurface. Now a study by scientists at Cardiff University in Wales suggests that our memories are indeed more robust than we thought.
The team says it has identified a process in the brain that could help either rescue lost memories or bury bad ones and so pave the way for new drugs and treatment for people with memory problems. The study — which is published in the journal Nature Communications — found that, in rats, chemically controlled "reminders" could reverse the amnesia caused by what the scientists call a "reconsolidation blockade" — a method previously thought to produce total memory loss.
A recent study at the University of Basel looked at the importance of forgetting and the processes by which synaptic connections break down. "Previous research in this area found that when you recall a memory it is sensitive to interference to other information and in some cases is completely wiped out," says Dr. Kerrie Thomas, who led the current project, "Our research found that despite using a technique in the brain thought to produce total amnesia we've been able to show that with strong reminders, these memories can be recovered."
Although these Cardiff researchers have only so far found results in rats, the team hopes they can be replicated in humans and new drugs and suggest treatment could be developed for people suffering with memory disorders. "We can now devise new drugs or behavioral strategies that can treat these memory problems in the knowledge that we won't overwrite our experiences," Thomas says.
"We are still a very long way off from helping people with memory problems," she adds. "However, these animal models do accurately reflect what's happening in humans and suggest that our autobiographical memories, our self-histories, are clouded by new memories rather than actually lost. This is an exciting prospect in terms of treating psychiatric illness associated with memory disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and psychosis."