Painful Memories Could Be Erased With Electroconvulsive Therapy

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slideIllustrated By Sydney Hass.
Of all the sci-fi movies that we wish were real, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is up near the top. The idea of being able to pick and choose the memories we carry around every day is a particularly powerful one. After all, we all have moments and experiences that we'd love to forget — especially around the holidays.

It turns out that a spotless mind may be closer to reality than you think. In a new study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers in the Netherlands successfully used electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to literally zap away traumatic memories.

The experiment involved 39 patients with severe depression who were already being treated with ECT. The patients were divided into three groups (A, B, and C), and each patient was shown two upsetting stories: one about a woman who is kidnapped and sexually abused, the other about a child who gets hit by a car.

A week later, they were asked to recount details about one of the two stories. Immediately afterward, groups A and B were given ECT, while group C was not.

Group B then had to take a multiple-choice test about both of the stories they had seen the week before. The ECT seemed to have little effect: They remembered both stories with similar levels of detail. Group A, however, was given the multiple-choice test one day after receiving ECT. The results were surprising: The patients recalled almost no details about the story they had to recount before receiving ECT. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, group C actually remembered more details about the story they had to recount, suggesting that recalling a memory makes it even stronger).

We have to admit, the concept of voluntary subjecting ourselves to ECT, which used to be called electro-shock therapy (the same procedure depicted in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and American Horror Story) is off-putting to say the least. However, the findings are promising, especially since the study suggests that the rest of the patients' memories remained intact after the procedure. The potential impact of this sort of research on the treatment of PTSD patients is huge — even if an Eternal Sunshine-esque future might still be a long way off for most of us. (The Wall Street Journal)