Insights into the cellular and molecular basis of emotion and memory could help patients with post traumatic stress disorder.
n 1999 a postdoc in my lab, Karim Nader, walked into my office with an idea for a new experiment. He outlined his plan to test a controversial theory in neuroscience called memory reconsolidation that contradicted what we had learned as a field about how memories were stored. The experiment he proposed seemed like such a reach that I told him not to bother doing it. As luck would have it, Nader wasn't a particularly obedient postdoc.
A month later, Nader came back into my office and said, "It worked." I looked at him surprised. "What worked?" I asked. "The reconsolidation experiment," he told me. I was amazed. Most neuroscientists, myself included, believed that a new memory, once consolidated into long-term storage, is stable. It's as if every long-term memory had its own connections in the brain. Each time you retrieve the memory, or remembered, you retrieved that original memory, and then returned it. Reconsolidation theory proposed a radically different idea—that the very act of remembering could change the memory. Therefore, every time you remembered, you'd recall the memory as it was the very last time you remembered it, rather than the memory that was created the first time. And it would be replaced as a new representation. This theory suggested that the very act of remembering might render memories fragile, subject to change or perhaps erasure. If Nader's pilot findings were correct, it might have huge implications in treatments for soldiers and other patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Could traumatic memories be dampened or erased by simply remembering? Nader's pilot data convinced me to focus my attention and lab resources on studies of reconsolidation, and many other labs soon followed. Reconsolidation took off like wildfire.