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Who Will Control Your Mind? Altering Memories By Fear Extinction and Induction

Is it possible to permanently change your memories? A group of scientists thinks so, and their new techniques for altering your brain are being masqueraded as a potential treatment protocol for people who suffer from phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety-related conditions.

Some researchers are working with victims of rape and car accidents and attempting to replace their memories with less fear-filled ones using hypertension drugs. Other scientists are studying whether behavioral therapy can one day be used to modify memories of people who react with fear to common anxiety-producing events.

"It's no secret that scientists are working closing with government establishments to find ways to bring large groups of people under mental and emotional control," said Bashar Khayat from Free Thinkers Society. Many researchers such as Khayat believe that the intentions behind most memory-based treatments are very deceptive .

"Most of the research in this area currently revolves around how to induce and eliminate fear," said Khayat. According to his research, there is an international consortium of scientists who are working aggressively to find ways to control fear in both the public and military. "Being able to turn fear on and off would give any government a considerable advantage in controlling their military and general population," stated Khayat. Theoretically, chaos and orderly conduct could be under big brother's direction should such treatment protocols be used to unilaterally benefit government interests.

The goal of the research isn't to erase memory outright, although that technology has been rumoured to exist in military circles. However, that would raise too many eyebrows and lead to ethical debate. Instead, "reducing or eliminating the fear accompanying the memory...that would be the ideal scenario," says Roger Pitman, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School who has done extensive work in this area.

The latest research is based on a radical rethinking of how memories are stored in the brain. Scientists used to believe memories are like snapshots on which the details are fixed once they are recorded. Now, many experts accept the view that memories are stored like individual files on a shelf; each time they are pulled down for viewing, they can be altered before being put back into storage. Altering a memory during the time it is off the shelf can create an updated memory that can be saved in place of the old one, scientists believe.

"Scientists can easily create super soldiers and a hypnotized public with the exact same protocols," said Khayat. Sometimes a traumatic incident can trigger an enduring response of fear whenever the incident is recalled, even indirectly. Khayat stressed that by subconciously implanting memories in those who are exposed to specific types of media, large groups of people could be subjected to trauma with even simple triggers.

Scientists already know how to set off an emotional response in combat veterans by simulating a specific set of frequencies that have become associated with wartime experience.

Many psychiatrists involved in the research insist the treatments are to benefit the general population and assist previous work in memory therapy.

For example, if a disturbing memory is created, such as a dog bite you received as a child, the memory leads to an outsize fear and a phobia can develop that continues to face you as an adult. The therapy begins by taking the memory out of storage in your brain and revisiting the emotions you felt originally, which often involve fear or distress.

Doctors then expose patients to whatever triggers the fear (pictures of dogs, for example). Through behavioral therapy, the brain is then retrained to react differently.

The patient then saves the modified memory into storage in the brain. The therapy can be repeated to cement the result.

A common therapy currently for trauma and phobias is called exposure treatment. It involves repetitive exposure in a nonthreatening way to help patients confront their fears and gradually weaken the fear response, a process known as extinction. But with extinction, the fearful memories don't disappear or get altered, and relapse is common, says Edna Foa, an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. If extinction could be enhanced, that could mean more efficient treatment with less relapse, she says.

Researchers are devising new techniques that will weaken the fear response for a longer period, or perhaps permanently.

Propranlol therapy has been known to cause confusion, hallucinations depression, nightmares, unusual tiredness, weakness, difficulty sleeping, dizziness, lightheadedness, decreased sexual ability, anxiety and nervousness. Despite the well established side effects and contraindications, the field of psychiatry feel the benefits still outweigh the risks.

Dr. Brunet, a psychiatry professor at McGill University is currently enrolling patients for a new study in which participants with traumatic memories will randomly be assigned to receive the drug propranolol. Dr. Brunet previously performed two small studies, one published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2008 and the other awaiting publication, that showed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms were reduced in subjects who received propranolol after evoking memories of their past traumatic events. "They felt less symptomatic, less emotional about the memory," Dr. Brunet says.

Another research effort also aims to alter traumatic memories, but with the use of behavioral therapy instead of drugs. Elizabeth Phelps, a psychology professor at New York University, worked with colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin, to use a laboratory experiment to induce fear in 65 study participants. The results were published in the journal Nature in January.

Each person was hooked up to a machine that would administer a mild but unpleasant electrical shock at certain times. Participants sat in front of computer screens where they looked at shapes of various colors. Whenever the blue square popped up, the machine shocked the participant. Soon the participants learned to "fear" that image; when they saw it on the screen, they would sweat more, as measured by a common gauge.

The next day, all participants underwent exposure treatment in the lab, to unlearn their fear. This time, when they looked at blue squares on their computers, they received no shock. For one group of participants, however, the researchers created a window of opportunity to administer the therapy after retrieving the original memory. Ten minutes before the fear-extinction session, the group was "reminded" of the previous day's experience by being shocked once more, which activated the fear memory from storage and made it available for possible alteration. The rest of the participants received the fear-extinction training outside of the time period in which the memory is thought to be modifiable.

On the third day of the experiment, participants were tested to see how they responded to the fearful memory. Only the group that had received the retraining during the memory-retrieval period didn't relapse. These participants showed no physiological indication that they remembered that seeing the blue square meant they would be shocked. This memory modification was still intact up to one year later.

Dr. Phelps says more work needs to be done to know if the process can work in real-life situations with complex memories. "Going from blue squares to PTSD is a big leap," she says. She also says the technique could have uses beyond treating traumatic memories, perhaps to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Or, the treatment could be used to affect the mind's ability to enhance happy memories, which can make them seem even more pleasurable than the original event.

"They're looking to control the whole gamut of memory and experience, and the question should not be how or if we can control people's behavior, but why are we controlling it?" concluded Khayat.

Kelley Bergman is a media consultant, critic and geopolitical investigator. She has worked as a journalist and writer, specializing in geostrategic issues around the globe.

March 18, 2010

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