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How Our Brains Get Rid of Unwanted Memories

Our brain has the ability to alert us to all kinds of dangerous situations. Whether the danger is caused by a predator, a noxious smell, or a loud noise, electrical impulses are sent down our sensory neurons, firing our brain’s danger circuitry into action. The brain is also an expert in knowing when something which is initially deemed to be a threat, turns out to be harmless, or when the threat has been resolved. Unfortunately, sometimes this early warning system fails and the feelings associated with the initial fear remain, as is the case in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, as a result of recent research, scientists have been able to identify the neuronal circuit which they believe is responsible for purging bad memories. This is great news for anyone who is suffering from PTSD and other kinds of anxiety based disorders.

Previous studies have suggested that two specific areas of the brain are responsible for causing and regulating responses to fear; the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala becomes active when we receive a shock or are scared, while the prefrontal cortex helps us to calm down if the threat proves to be harmless. Scientists believe that our ability to purge painful memories involves some sort of coordinated activity between these two areas of the brain, a belief which has been confirmed by a new study carried out by the National Institutes of Health.

Andrew Holmes, who is leading the research, explains that the amygdala and prefrontal cortex are two major centres or hubs of the communication network in the brain, and that cases where the brain is not able to purge bad memories, involves just one connection between these two areas rather than damage to the entire hubs. Therefore he believes that attempting to fix that one line of communication as opposed to trying to reengineer the centres will prove to be a more successful treatment.

These new findings could help scientists to develop new therapeutic approaches to anxiety disorders, and enable them to produce medications that will act on the fear circuit itself, which can potentially be used to supplement the current treatments for anxiety disorders.

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