A Blog by Virginia Hughes

Shocking Memories Away

In the spring of 1968, experimental psychologist Donald Lewis and his colleagues published a study about memory that was well before its time. The researchers first trained rats to fear a particular sound. A day later, the animals heard the same sound followed immediately by an electroconvulsive shock to the head. After getting shocked, the animals forgot their fear of the sound. The old memory was gone.

The study was remarkable for its focus on memory retrieval, rather than memory formation. See, research up until then had suggested that a memory is only unstable (and thus vulnerable to change) in the minutes or hours after it’s first created. During this period, called ‘consolidation’, the memory moves into the brain’s long-term storage and, it was thought, into a stable and fixed molecular state. “For decades people had thought that once a memory is wired in the brain it stays there forever,” says Karim Nader, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal. But Lewis’s study showed that wasn’t true: When a rat recalled a stored memory, the memory somehow became unstable again, making it vulnerable to erasure.

Lewis’s study contained a revolutionary idea, but it didn’t revolutionize the memory field. It was published in a top journal, Science, and followed up immediately by another group of researchers. But as that group reported the following year, also in Science, they couldn’t replicate Lewis’s findings. Over the next few decades, a couple of other studies came out suggesting that memories become unstable during recollection, but the idea never made it into the textbooks. “Part of the field believed it, but the other part of the field just didn’t believe it,” Nader says. “And the ones who didn’t believe it were the dominant ones.”

Nader gets credit for rekindling the idea in the late 1990s, while working as a postdoc in Joe LeDoux’s lab at New York University. Nader showed that, in rats, old memories can be erased by infusing a drug into the animal’s brain as it recalls the memory. Because the drug blocked protein synthesis, this experiment was evidence that memories go through a ‘reconsolidation’ process after being recalled, and that this process requires protein synthesis (just like the initial consolidation does).

Unlike Lewis’s study, Nader’s, published in Nature in 2000, did rock the field, not least because of its clinical implications. The results opened up the possibility that the frightening memories that haunt people with post-traumatic stress disorder could be erased — even long after they are formed.

A study out today in Nature Neuroscience takes this research a big step further by demonstrating not only that memory reconsolidation happens in people, but that it can be blocked with electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT.

Marijn Kroes and his colleagues at Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, tested the memories of 39 people with severe depression who were already undergoing ECT. This rare treatment has an interesting cultural history. “People have the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest idea of it,” Kroes says, referring to the 1975 film in which Jack Nicholson’s character is forced — wide awake, whimpering and writhing in pain — to undergo ECT at a mental institution. “Luckily it’s nothing like that.”

Today ECT is used as a last resort for people with severe depression who do not respond to antidepressants, psychotherapy, or other treatments. It’s done in a hospital room, after the patient receives muscle relaxants and general anesthesia. A brief electric current passes through the brain, inducing a seizure. For reasons no one yet knows, it usually works: ECT had an 86 percent remission rate for people with major depression, according to one study.

Kroes wanted to find out whether ECT could erase memories during active recall, as it had for the rats in Lewis’s experiment nearly 50 years ago.

All of the participants first saw two narrated slide shows, each describing a different traumatic story with 11 pictures. In one of them, for example, two sisters leave their house to visit their brother at a nearby bar. As they walk past an alley, one of the sisters is kidnapped by a man and held at knife point:


The other story is similar in structure, but shows a boy getting hit by a car and then in surgery having his feet reattached to his legs. In the words of the paper, these are “high-arousing stories with negative valence.” I’ll say.

A week after the participants watched the slide shows, the researchers showed them the first slide from one of the stories as a memory trigger. A few minutes later, some participants were given ECT. After the treatment, they were given a memory test about the details of both stories.

Participants who did not undergo ECT got about half of the questions about the triggered memory correct, compared with 40 percent of questions about the other story (which they had not seen for a week).

In stark contrast, participants who received ECT seemed to have no memory of the story they had been reminded of — they scored a 25 percent on a four-answer multiple choice test, the same as guessing at random. The same participants showed significantly better recall — 35 percent — of the second, non-triggered story. ECT, in other words, selectively erased the memories that were being actively recalled, just as it had for Lewis’s rats.

“It’s a very elegant paper, compelling data, and it’s a difficult study to do,” says Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who was not involved in the work. “It’s very impressive they managed to do that, and that they even tried.”

Schiller’s experiments have also bolstered the reconsolidation hypothesis. She has shown, for example, that if people recall a fearful memory and then go through ‘extinction learning’ — meaning that they’re shown the fearful stimulus over and over again without any pain — they can erase the emotional sting of the memory. Other groups have shown something similar by giving people propranolol, a beta-blocker, immediately after recalling a memory.

The new study adds ECT to the list. There are still a lot of questions. For example, it’s not clear how ECT is disrupting reconsolidation. Or if it’s doing it at all: The effect could be partly or wholly due to anesthesia, though the researchers say this is unlikely. Most importantly, no one knows whether the procedure would work with old, real memories, as opposed to those artificially created in the lab.

Kroes and his colleagues are planning a clinical trial in which they will use ECT to lessen traumatic memories in people with PTSD. “Just to be clear: it’s a long way from being an actual clinical application,” he says. “A lot of experimental, fundamental science is often very difficult to translate into the real world.”

I asked all of these scientists a question that I’m sure they get every week: When are we going to be able to erase whatever memories we want, like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?

Kroes was quick to say, and rightly so, that ECT should only be used as a serious medical treatment. “You have to have some kind of disease state,” he says.

But as far as the technology goes, and what it could do, everybody told me that there’s no reason to think that we couldn’t play out a Spotless Mind scenario in the not-too-distant future.

“I wouldn’t have said so a few years, but there’s just more and more evidence, with different types of memories, different types of manipulations, and different species,” Schiller says.

Right or wrong, there’s certainly demand for it. Nader remembers the big public response to his 2000 Nature paper. “The day after it was published, a number of women emailed Joe [LeDoux] and asked, ‘Can you get rid of the memories of my ex-husband?'”

But would he be OK with that kind of application, should the technology advance as experts expect it will? “For me,” Nader says, “I don’t think that would be the end of the world.”

43 thoughts on “Shocking Memories Away

  1. Advertising ECT as a “treatment” for anything does a gross disservice to vulnerable people – potential and actual research subjects and those suffering from hopelessness, depression, plus those “selected” for ECT by courts and licensed practitioners who can and do coerce patients into submission.

    Inducing a seizure is in no circumstances beneficial or therapeutic, and ECT should have been banned and banished along with the use of cattle prods and other means of electric-based torture.

    Significant, prolonged and permanent memory loss has almost always been underreported and largely dismissed by those who have reasons to gain from inflicting it on sentient beings. “What to you have to lose?” they sneer. Well, the memories which make up the human experience are no small thing.

    Read, John and Bentall, Richard. The effectiveness of electroconvulsive therapy: A literature review. Epidemiologia e Psichiatria Sociale, 19, 4, 2010.

    “Aim – To review the literature on the efficacy of electroconvulsive therapy [ECT], with a particular focus on depression, its primary target group. Methods – PsycINFO, Medline, previous reviews and meta-analyses were searched in an attempt to identify all studies comparing ECT with simulated-ECT [SECT]. Results – These placebo controlled studies show minimal support for effectiveness with either depression or ‘schizophrenia’ during the course of treatment (i.e. only for some patients, on some measures, sometimes perceived only by psychiatrists but not by other raters), and no evidence, for either diagnostic group, of any benefits beyond the treatment period. There are no placebo-controlled studies evaluating the hypothesis that ECT prevents suicide, and no robust evidence from other kinds of studies to support the hypothesis. Conclusions – Given the strong evidence
    (summarised here) of persistent and, for some, permanent brain dysfunction, primarily evidenced in the form of retrograde and
    anterograde amnesia, and the evidence of a slight but significant increased risk of death, the cost-benefit analysis for ECT is so
    poor that its use cannot be scientifically justified.”

  2. I would like to offer my hypothesis that this treatment is ineffective for manic depressive/bipolar individuals. It is not a known method to alter genetic’s, and therefore a predisposition will remain. Furthermore, from my experience, my mother suffered a tramatic childhood and had manic depression/bipolar disorder.She underwent EST and had only short-term memory loss. She later committed suicide within two years of the procedure.

  3. It doesn’t take 240 volts of electricity to make the memory, why should it take that much shock to the brain to erase it. It is called using an elephant gun to kill a fly.

    Psychiatry is still obviously floundering around in the dark. They are still experimenting on hapless patients without ANY idea of how the mind works. The reason it “looks” better than “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” are the anti-convulsive drugs they now give to deaden any reaction from the patient. The internal damage is still the same, it just looks better now.

    Shock treatment came from Italian psychiatrists watching animal slaughter house procedures being used on cows. Can’t we expect psychiatry to advance beyond a 90 year old technology based on slaughtering bovines?

    And then, of course, there are the placebo studies (mentioned in an earlier comment), which psychiatrists never talk about.

  4. Psychiatry is a fake science. They have never cured or properly treated any mental disorder and modern americun psychiatry is rapidly evolving into an arm of the state for social control purposes.
    Exercise – running, keep-fit etc is known to be more effective than psychiatry and also in certain other medical areas such as blood pressure control, cholesterol and diabetes than todays medications.

  5. Annie-Not only is psychiatry fake science, virtually all psychiatrists carry out the government’s agenda. I only have met one psychiatrist who cared about his patients over the government’s agenda.

  6. Maybe the rats associated the electroconvulsive shock to the head with punishment for reacting with fear to the sound, therefore not reacting as expected in further sound attempts

  7. Controversial topic, with many ramifications.I am currently studying a course in Neuroscience to become a CNRN and have become fascinated with the potentials for helping people who suffer endlessly from the scenarios that replay themselves in their minds. PTSD is really a tortured state for many individuals and medications and/or cognitive behavioral therapies leave much to be desired. This treatment offers a possibility of freedom for many, it appears.

  8. I intended to write something witty, but I walked across a carpet in socks and got shocked off a door handle and forgot what I wanted to say.

  9. I wonder, if/ when the tech advances, if this could be used as a alternative to incarceration. If one were able to “wipe away” an urge ( show pics or video that allow these urges to surface) as it’s recalled, leaving the individual without the criminal motivation, wouldn’t that be better for society as a whole?

    But if this future tech is misused, I can see a Walden 3!

    1. James Brazil-My favorite professor, who has a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Southern California, said, “Good paying jobs solve crime.” She said that to the class in the 1980s. Of course, now all the good paying jobs for the most part have been sent to Asia and Mexico. So there are few left for Americans and others in first world nations.

  10. I’d love to undergo that treatment.
    I’m only 18 years old and on anxiety meds and anti depressives due to a troublesome childhood and other things.
    It would be nice to forget what’s happened and live a happy life. Even if it’s short term, I’d cherish those moments.

  11. I knew someone, severely depressed and suffering PTSD, who went through ECT as a last resort. The tormenting memories were interrupted for a couple of months but then they came back. She suffered severe headaches for a year following the ECT and problems with short term memory loss. She was in and out of mental hospitals for the following year continuing to deteriorate. We lost touch after that, but I strongly suspect she committed suicide. Having said that, I have experienced both competent compassionate psychiatric care and truly awful care. But the idea that they are all carrying out some kind of government ordered agenda is a bizarre conspiracy theory.

    1. Kerry, If you read my post of January 5, 2014, you would have seen that I never said ALL psychiatrists, just most of them.

  12. It’s a shame to see these comment grouping Psychology and Neuroscience with Psychiatry. While there are similarities, they are very much different industries, with a Psychiatrist requiring a Medical Degree. Please don’t tarnish the reputation of certain industries with the controversies of another.

  13. You guys are missing the point of it all. They are clearly stating that its for helping forget traumatizing memories, AFTER they fully understand how it works. Not cure schizophrenia. And half of you are biased by your view of the government. It’s not far fetched to, after making it possible in the first place, try perfecting zapping or intterupting data uploads from the brain, causing you to lose that bit of data entirely. USB Devices warn you of that possibility. Do not unplug while there is a stream of data exchange, could lose all data. Now, everything has trials to go through before they are perfected, and people may lose the wrong memories in the process, but think of it once it’s finally understood? It works, we just gotta know more about how.

  14. Hi, everybody. These are some interesting comments and I’ll address them a bit later today when I have some time. But I’m curious why there’s all this sudden interest in this old(ish) post? Did somebody post it on Facebook or something?

  15. if ECT is that much effective i wish the whole homo sepians should go under that treatment to remove bitter histories which cause discord among them,

  16. Virginia,

    Dr. Michio Kaku posted it on Facebook today. It interestingly makes sense how the first comments were largely political while the last several were defending the science of it.

    To respond to several comments (though I’m sure they will not read it), ECT is the only effective treatment for some people, as I have seen through experience. Unfortunately, the person I know with severe depression/possibly bipolar must receive the treatment every two weeks. In this way, she can live as close to a normal life as possible, barring being unable to work. It is also worth noting that the treatment is surprisingly comfortable for her.

    Yet, we all know that ECT is not the best method in the world and should be improved upon. Psychiatry/psychology (different things, I know) is not a joke field, but is working closely with neurologists and neuroscientists to help unlock the secrets to the most complex system in the universe that we know of. That is equivalent to saying that theoretical physics is a joke field because they don’t have the answers.

    Furthermore, it makes sense why the government and psychology would appear to have close relation. Where the purpose of psychology is to understand the mind–that is, to break down human thoughts, feelings, and actions into basic observable and controllable phenomena–our government tends to lean a little LEFT these days, with a sort of fundamental framework that we are not entirely responsible for our actions. Conservatives tend to think otherwise, and I personally lean conservative for full disclosure. But this doesn’t mean that the psychiatrists/psychologists are in a relationship with the government.

  17. I grabbed an electrical wire that was spliced off from my grandfathers house the summer before 5th grade….I have to say that in the long run it did such a good job at removing memories that I have had constant un necessary struggle with things that other people just seemed to know to do…i couldn’t remember my friends names….I couldn’t remember anything about my mother or father…..It was a nightmare and at 36 I still have issues of the same magnitude

  18. ECT is awful and I would advise anyone against it. It does not selectively address any one particular memory, or collection of memories. It’s meant to reboot the brain – unfortunately, these folks think you can unplug the brain, and plug it back in like when your cable modem needs to be cycled. I remember slivers of life the 2 – 4 mos. previous to my 16 treatments, only remember throwing up in the car and being bed-ridden with migraines that would last for days during my three mos. of treatments, and slivers the following couple months. The treatment did not work, and the adverse effects have left me with greater depression because I have lost my ability to be creative, which as an artist is hell – and something we rely upon for our well-being, and to effectively process thoughts. At times I have forgotten how to tie my shoes (I’m 39), and even my middle name – I sometimes wonder if I’m still going through a treatment – this is f’d up. This is NOT a selective memory recall/erase process. Over a year and a half after my treatments, I remember all the environmental trauma that contributed to my severe depression – to treat PTSD would be absurd!!!!!! You’ll forget those months around the treatment, but remember pretty much everything that landed you there. If anything, those memories have become more prevalent/distinct and many good things lost – not to mention my cognitive abilities which often leave me lost and confused. I also have audio/visual flashbacks from my treatment while “under” aneasthesia which make me sick to my stomach, and feel disgusting. The methods may be more “refined” but this does not excuse the fact that 450v is being jammed through your brain – anaesthesia/muscle relaxers are the only difference between now, and cuckoos nest. Machines are NOT regulated by the FDA, NOR THE PROCESS!!!!! Dr’s routinely use machines that are out of date, or not functioning properly. We are still in the cuckoos nest, but what’s worse, is that we think we’re better than that now – ECT is the same as it’s ever been…

  19. Protein s Homoginize become solid. Don’t cook my brain I am not your break fest egg! Ive been around people whom have had these procedures. Their behavior even if they don’t understand why remains the same. Memories are not isolated in the brain. That is not the resting place of an idea or reaction. The whole problem is peoples brains are and have been proven to not be always identical in mapping , some regions in one preform different functions then others brains. It is not as uniform or mechanical as a rifle s interchangeable parts. Again these convulsions are doing damage and I for one do not think a solid state of a protien could preform or transmit the proper electricul chemical impulses in a manner benifical to the patient. The goal is recovery right. The only way to recover from something is to be able to revert or ressemble the previous state and you can’t return protien after its been homoginized. The memories are there for a reason and your experience is yours how ever painful it is erasing the recognition of the reason for a response doesnt take away the muscle memories reaction. This is a attempt at mind control. A dark and disturbing one.

  20. I would gladly volunteer. I have painful memories that affect me all day, every day and it impacts our quality of life.
    I can’t imagine what it would be like to wake up one morning and not suffer from pain, anxiety and stress.

  21. Hayley-I wonder if meditation would help you? It’s not fair to wake up every day suffering with pain, anxiety, and stress. Or see a psychologist to talk out what causes these feelings in you.

  22. ECT was used here in Australia but was stopped decades ago – its barbaric and no it does not help bi polar in fact there were many cases of people committing suicide.electrocuting the brain is something we do not need to repeat. It has already been proven to do more harm than good the same as deep sleep therapy. There are more up to date ways to deal with this. AND STOP EXPERIMENTING ON ANIMALS YOU CRUEL HUMANS !!!!

  23. I agree with Kerry that many psychiatrists do good work for the right reasons. To say they are all in collusion w govt is ludicrous. They’re not all Josef Minghella.

    1. Scott-If you’re referring to my comment of January 5, 2014, you need to reread it, because I never said all psychiatrists. Furthermore, if someone is a threat to the government, as I am, they often use the psychiatric profession to try to discredit that individual. And people such as yourself fall for that.

  24. I believe in resilience. Humans can be as strong minded as they are weak minded, and it’s all a matter of perception. Understanding is tantamount to progress. No amount of understanding will be enough for those who cannot surrender to lack of control. Every day you live you are changed, and it is our ability to adapt to change that makes us strong. Vitality is our ally in a life long struggle to cure depression. You cannot lift a car until you have trained yourself, so apply the same concept to training your vigor. Perception is key, not therapy. If anyone is in doubt, I reccomend watching Andrew Solomon’s talk on depression on TED talks. It has given me more hope through understanding, than any pill, or any therapy.

  25. Human brain memory is far more complicated than short or long memory. First of all we have some form of memory where is memorizes vital connections controlling our moving learning and other experiences connected to the position of the objects in the surrounding world and main properties and understanding connections between them. The first memory obviously is unchangeable all over the living time of the brain and each new learning is add towards this memory but not replace it, the second memory is some form of similar memory, which remember only similarity between the objects obviously to save memory place in the brain. I review this not to enter in detail in the brain physiology but to help for understanding of new electronic super processor, which I call joroprocessor http://www.kanevuniverse.com

  26. forgettable is a gift of human being, there created by genetically or experiences nor either a mental disorders ,less than one persent that ECT can cure of mental disorder, i dont think its can cure of high altittude pobia. and event worth Megalomaniac..

  27. so, eclectro convulsive therapy shocks memory away. what else so it do while it does that? you are so busy figurin’ out if you COULD do it, you didn’t think about if you SHOULD do it. just another lab rat here.

  28. E.c.t. helped my father twice. 1st time at UCLA over a few weeks/months consecutively. 2nd time at St.Johns in Santa Monica. It was hard and scary but his disposition in proved and he was no longer writhing in psycosomatic induced pain . I’m as weary of petty application as the next person but I would not deny this treatment to those who really have not been helped by more conventional treatment. P.S in my area there are many professionals who’s goal is to help the individual and could care less about the government! !♡♡

  29. So unless you have been living with uncontrollable psychosomatic pain or have cared for a loved one suffering like this, maybe you should reserve judgment♡

  30. Psychiatry is a fake science… What is a real science? I guess you can make the argument that psychiatry is just a tool used to satiate our need to label others, sure the terms sound fancy, after all we are basically the same. But this leads us to the all important question, why? Why are we the way we are? This is the question psychiatry is here to answer! You can also apply this question to the world, universe around us and BAM you get the mother of all sciences Philosophy! From this one subject ,philosophy, we get everything.. From cosmology to molecular biology… We humans are good at finding something we don’t understand and developing a way to understand it. In essence this is all science is, a way for us to find meaning… By this definition religion is nothing more than a philosophy, and a science, trying to explain why we are here… And unlike other scientific disciplines it requires none of the proof the other sciences hold up to, via the implementation of the scientific method, but that’s another topic lol
    in summation, all the sciences come from a need to understand… And since the strategies implemented are developed by us, they are constantly changing and tweaked in order to better understand what we see. Finally, everything is fake and nothing is real.. Its just how we try to cope with everything. I’m not even here.. I’m in.. The matrix is real!

    1. James Brazil-To answer your question, What science is real? just let me say that true science corrolates with scripture. So if it doesn’t, it’s been compromised.

    1. James Brazil-My comment was not meant to be funny. I don’t joke on these forums.

      Don’t know what “oh honey” means other than a term of endearment.

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