Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Memory Reconsolidation



Nature 463, 49-53 (7 January 2010)

Preventing the return of fear in humans using reconsolidation update mechanisms

Daniela Schiller, Marie-H. Monfils, Candace M. Raio, David C. Johnson, Joseph E. LeDoux & Elizabeth A. Phelps

Center for Neural Science,

Psychology Department, New York University, New York, New York 10003, USA

Psychology Department, University of Texas, Austin, Texas 78712, USA


Recent research on changing fears has examined targeting reconsolidation. During reconsolidation, stored information is rendered labile after being retrieved. Pharmacological manipulations at this stage result in an inability to retrieve the memories at later times, suggesting that they are erased or persistently inhibited. Unfortunately, the use of these pharmacological manipulations in humans can be problematic. Here we introduce a non-invasive technique to target the reconsolidation of fear memories in humans. We provide evidence that old fear memories can be updated with non-fearful information provided during the reconsolidation window. As a consequence, fear responses are no longer expressed, an effect that lasted at least a year and was selective only to reactivated memories without affecting others. These findings demonstrate the adaptive role of reconsolidation as a window of opportunity to rewrite emotional memories, and suggest a non-invasive technique that can be used safely in humans to prevent the return of fear.

Learning about potential dangers in the environment is critical for adaptive function, but at times fear learning can be maladaptive, resulting in excessive fear and anxiety.

There is robust evidence that motor, declarative and emotional memories rely on distinct memory systems in the brain, and the reconsolidation process and effect of new information presented during the reconsolidation window may differ depending on the type of memory being updated.

The present study showed that updating fear memories with non-fearful information provided through extinction training led to the blockade of previously learned fear responses and a lasting change in the original fear memory. These results have significant implications for the treatment of anxiety disorders. The present study proposes that invasive techniques are not necessary. Using a more natural intervention that captures the adaptive purpose of reconsolidation allows a safe and easily implemented way to prevent the return of fear.

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