HDAC Inhibitor Facilitates Extinction of Fear Memories in the Reconsolidation Window

February 5, 2014 · Posted in Potential Treatments 

mouse in its hole

Unwanted recall and re-experiencing of traumatic memories is thought to be a crucial mechanism leading to the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The inability to diminish (extinguish) those memories contributes to the persistence  of PTSD. A new study suggests that the extinction of fear memories can be enhanced by a drug that acts epigenetically to alter the structure of DNA and subsequent gene expression.

DNA is wound around structures called histones, and chemical changes can affect how loosely or tightly the DNA is wound. Johannes Graff et al. reported in the journal Cell in 2014 that application of a histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitor, which keeps acetyl groups on histones, ensuring that DNA is wrapped more loosely and is easier to activate (or transcribe), helps rodents revise both new and old fear memories after they have been actively recalled.

When a memory is actively recalled, the trace of that memory in the brain becomes more amenable to revision over the proceeding five minutes to one hour (a period known as the reconsolidation window). New learning and extinction training (to get rid of the memory) lasts much longer when it takes place during the reconsolidation window than when the same procedures are performed 6 hours later (after the reconsolidation window has closed) or if the procedures are performed in the absence of active recall of the memory (when the reconsolidation window is never opened).

We have previously described the 2013 work of Xue et al. published in the journal Science, which showed that this specific procedure could yield long-lasting extinction of a patient’s craving for cocaine or heroin, and could reduce amygdala activation (as observed via functional magnetic resonance imaging) in response to an experiment that produces conditioned fear (Agren et al. Science, 2013).

Editor’s Note: This new work by Graff et al. adds another twist.  Older long-term memories are more stable and less amenable to new learning than more recent (but still long-term) memories.  The application of an HDAC inhibitor changes this and makes even very old memories amenable to lasting revision. The HDAC inhibitor that Graff et al. used was a specific inhibitor for HDAC type II.  However, the anticonvulsant valproate (Depakote) is a potent although nonspecific HDAC inhibitor, and presumably could have the same facilitating effect as the more selective drug.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which has been widely used for the treatment of PTSD, includes active memory recall, immediately followed by an attempt to re-interpret and construct new memories of the trauma.  These elements could open the reconsolidation window. However, EMDR works less well with older memories compared to more recent traumatic memories.

The Graff et al. data would suggest that adding an HDAC inhibitor such as valproate to EMDR-like work might make it more effective in revising more remote memories. Graff et al. encourage controlled clinical trials with a type II inhibitor to confirm that their findings in rodents would generalize to humans. While awaiting such validation through controlled clinical trials, it would not be surprising if clinicians started trying out the paradigm on their own using valproate.


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