Suppressing traumatic memories can cause amnesia, research suggests

It has long been understood in the world of psychotherapy that traumatic experience frequently leads to suppression of unwanted memories. These unwanted memories become locked away in a kind of time capsule, blocked from consciousness these traumatic experiences continue to exist in a person’s subconscious; simultaneously many emotional states or responses associated with the events also become locked into this time capsule. These unconscious processes that continue to exert themselves on individuals perceptions of life and influence everyday actions. Now there is neurological research to corroborate these findings. Suppressing bad memories from the past can block memory formation in the here and now, research suggests. The following study could help explain why those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological conditions often experience difficulty in remembering recent events.

A recent study (you can read the full article here; Justin C. Hulbert, Richard N. Henson & Michael C. Anderson) “Inducing amnesia through systemic suppression”, explores how forgetting past incidents by suppressing  recollections can create a “virtual lesion” in the brain that casts an “amnesiac shadow” over the formation of new memories. “If you are motivated to try to prevent yourself from reliving a flashback of that initial trauma, anything that you experience around the period of time of suppression tends to get sucked up into this black hole as well,” Dr Justin Hulbert

Decades of research on memory formation show that the hippocampus is essential for constructing new episodic memories. Hippocampal damage irreversibly harms people’s ability to store new memories, causing profound amnesia for life’s events

Reversibly disturbing the hippocampus through optogenetic, electrical and pharmacological interventions temporarily disrupts memory formation. Research indicates that people often downregulate hippocampal activity through cognitive control when they are reminded of an unwelcome event and try to stop retrieval.

Together, these findings imply a striking possibility: if stopping (suppressing) episodic retrieval reduces hippocampal activity, this may broadly disturb all hippocampal functions, including—critically—processes necessary to form and retain new, stable memories.

Retrieval suppression may, in essence, induce a transient ‘virtual lesion’, leaving in its wake, an amnesic shadow for any experiences—whether related or not to the memory being suppressed—that simply have the misfortune of happening near in time to efforts to forget.

Professor Chris Brewin, an expert in PTSD from University College, London, who was not involved in the study.

“I think it makes perfect sense because we know that people with a wide range of psychological problems have difficulties with their everyday memories for ordinary events,” “Potentially this could account for the memory deficits we find in depression and other disorders too.”  (Guardian 15 March 2016)

Medicalising unhappiness: new classification of depression risks more patients being put on drug treatment from which they will not benefit

Extracts taken from the British Medical Journal (BMJ 2013;347:f7140 doi: 10.1136/bmj.f7140 (Published 9 December 2013)

In England, antidepressant prescribing increased at over 10% each year between 1998 and 2010, a rise far greater than for any other psychiatric medication.

Descriptions of a mental condition can be interpreted in so many ways depending on the perspective of the interested parties. With regard to diagnosing depression as a disorder there are four major players in this arena; firstly there is the psychiatric community who determine and publish the DSM-5. Secondly there is the pharmaceutical industry, thirdly there are the G.P’s and fourthly there is the public itself

The recently published DSM-5 broadened the diagnosis of major depressive disorder to incorporate milder forms of depression and sadness. For example bereavement grief (not an mental illness in itself) became assigned to the status of a major depressive disorder allowing a diagnosis after just two weeks following a bereavement.

In addition the homogenisation of major depressive disorder has been in part a consequence of heavy drug company marketing and an over-strong focus among many psychiatrists on the biological correlates of psychiatric symptoms rather than the psychological, social, and cultural.

For GPs a diagnosis of depression may be an attractive instrument for managing uncertainty in the consulting room, especially as its commonest treatment comes in the form of a once daily pill and is encouraged by clinical guidelines and indicators.

In Western societies there is a trend for the public to expect the right to happiness and a need to restrict the range of negative emotions that are considered unacceptable and abnormal

 Patients often request treatment for symptoms of sadness, and both doctors and patients can feel obliged to offer and accept a diagnosis of major depressive disorder.

There is still a widely held view that all depression is “brain disease” caused by chemical imbalance which can be “corrected” by pills. Countering this belief is all important and achieved by noting the relevance of life circumstances.

Patients can be helped by G.P’s listening carefully to their story, promoting the value of time as a healer and encouraging them to build resilience through  support. A diagnosis of depression as a disorder may not be appropriate. Patients should be able to receive an alternative to pharmaceuticals such as counselling to help them through a complex array of thoughts that have no biological basis

 bmj.depression full article