Special Segment: Erasing Memory

November 26, 2009 (CHICAGO) The mystery behind our memories may never be fully uncovered, but scientists are starting to understand where and how memories are stored in our brains, and that could mean relief for those living with a past they'd rather forget.

Depending on how you look at it, Jill Price either lives with a curse or a gift. Ask her what happened on March 30, 1981, and she can tell you exactly.

"Reagan was shot, and that was a Monday," Price said.

She also has no problem recalling the precise date the Challenger crashed.

"That was Tuesday, the 28th of January, 1986," Price said.

In fact, Price remembers every detail of her life since she was 14 years old. She has near-perfect memory, or what researchers call Hyperthymestic Syndrome.

"I am completely in the moment, but I also have this split-screen in my head that is always running. It's just random memories always just flowing," Price said.

Price's unusual case raises the questions: why do we remember and why do we forget? Neurobiologist James McGaugh says we develop strong memories when we experience an emotional arousal.

"If you are excited, emotionally excited, about something, you're going to remember it better," McGaugh said.

When we get excited, the body's adrenal glands release stress hormones that travel through the body and turn on an area of the brain called the amygdala.

"It's a needle in the needle in the haystack problem, and I think we solved that problem," said Gary Lynch, PhD.

In one image of a brain cell, the yellow color is a synapse that has changed, meaning one can actually seeing a memory being formed.

Iraqi war veteran Allen Meggison has memories that haunt him every day. Once it's there, can a memory be removed?

"I think that no matter how much time passes, it's really not going to ease the pain any," Meggison said.

But, after decades of research scientists have discovered what they call the memory molecule.

"This is the first physical identification of a molecule that is definitively important for storing memory," said Andre Fenton, PhD.

In a lab experiment, researchers manipulated that molecule in the brains of rats.

When they were given a drug called Zip, they forgot what parts of this turntable delivered a mild shock.

Investigators from Harvard are studying whether another drug, Propranolol, can weaken the emotional response to memories in humans.

Medical ethicists, however, have concerns about editing memory.

"You start changing somebody's memories, you can raise the question of whether or not you're changing their identity in some fundamental way," said Felicia Cohn, PhD.

Meggison says he wouldn't want to take a drug to help him forget.

"I may have these bad memories, but they make me the person I am today," he said.

Price would just like to find a way to discard the memories that really have little meaning.

"Every day, you are able to take the trash and put it outside. Well, I've got 43 years of trash that just piles up and follows me around," Price said.

Researchers are also studying the effects of other drugs for memory editing. Some of those include painkillers and anti-nausea medications.

For More Information, Contact:
Ronald Najman
Communications and Special Projects
SUNY Downstate Medical Center
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 270-2696

For More Information, Contact:
Christopher S. Rex, Ph.D.
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA
(949) 824-4251

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