Revising Traumatic Memories in the Reconsolidation Window

October 6, 2017 · Posted in Potential Treatments 

elderly womanWe have previously described in the BNN how therapies can take advantage of the memory reconsolidation window to reduce the power of traumatic memories. Five minutes to one hour following active emotional recall of a traumatic event, a ‘window’ opens during which therapies can revise or extinguish the traumatic memory. A 2017 article by our Editor-in-Chief Robert M. Post and Robert Kegan in the journal Psychiatric Research describes how the reconsolidation window could theoretically be used to prevent recurring depressive episodes.

The theory is based on the idea that depressive episodes initially stem from stressors, but eventually become ingrained in the brain’s habit memory system. Cognitive behavioral therapy during the memory reconsolidation window might be a good way to disrupt these habit memories.

The memory reconsolidation window has already been used successfully to reduce traumatic memories and even to reduce heroin and cocaine cravings in addiction. The idea in changing traumatic memories, in the words of researcher Göran Högberg in a 2011 article in the journal Psychology Research in Behavior Management, is to “change a reliving intruding memory into a more distant episodic memory.” Post and Kegan suggest that work in depression would have a similar goal, to rework the triggering experience and render the depressive experience “less harsh, severe, [and] self-defeating (guilt-inducing).”
In exploring this new therapeutic approach, Post and Kegan suggest that it might be best to begin with patients whose depressive episodes are triggered by stressors.

The patient would be encouraged to recall the memory of the particular stressor and any emotions related to it. Then they would be prompted to reframe the memory, either by recognizing adaptive aspects of their response, focusing on their youth at the time of the stressor in the case of childhood memories, addressing any guilt the patient may feel, or other techniques used in trauma therapy. Evoking positive feelings during this period via relaxation exercises would be another useful practice.

In addition to targeting stressors that precede depression, the stress of the depressive experience itself could be a target of reframing during the reconsolidation window.
Questions remain, such as whether to target early or more recent memories, and whether this technique would be as useful in reducing manic episodes. Patient characteristics might also affect the success of this type of therapeutic intervention.

Post and Kegan also address how the therapy might be used in different stages of illness, and how it might be combined with other therapies, such as medications or procedures such as repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS).


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