In the near future, the bed may replace the psychiatrist couch in ending traumatic events plaguing people’s memories. That’s right, people may be able to sleep away bad memories.
Published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers say brain training during sleep can lessen effects of bad memories affecting a person’s daily life. If this is the case, post-traumatic disorders and phobias could ultimately be treated without the help of psychotherapy.
The most commonly used treatment today in fighting psychiatric disorders is exposure therapy. This treatment process consists of having the patient re-live his fears one horror at a time. With repeated help of a therapist, reducing the patient’s response to traumatic prompts can alter a patient’s memory, thus reducing fear of the event.
Employing this type of treatment can be intolerable for patients who are going into therapy in order to heal from the psychological disorder affecting them, having to relive the terrifying situations.
However, the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, Neuroscientist Katherina Hauner devised a therapy that works while the patient sleeps.
The neuroscientist profession is very excited about the findings. It was thought that in order to change a person’s emotions, it was necessary for the patient to be fully awake and have a conscious understanding of their emotional response. But research says differently. Now it appears that in sleep, bad memories can be extinguished.
In studying the newly discovered therapy, Hauner’s team gave patients light electrical shocks when viewing a series of faces associated with odors. Shocking the subjects upon introduction of the combination stimuli created fearful memories. People would begin to sweat when seeing the faces paired with the odor knowing that a shock was soon forthcoming.
After the training, the subjects would be sent in to take a nap inside the lab. Electrodes were placed on their scalps to monitor their brain waves. During the person’s slow-wave sleep, (a sleep stage where recent memories are replayed in the forefront of the mind) one of the fear-linked odors was released. Without the need of initiating a mild shock when the odor was introduced, the subject sleeping became agitated.
When repeating this process every 30 seconds, the sleeping patient’s anxiety towards the odor eventually subsided over time.
Once awakened and reintroduced to the face-odor combination that had previously triggered the sleeping subject’s fearful reactions, scientists discovered that the person’s fear of the stimuli had diminished.
The results of this test suggest that it was not the treatment that erased the fearful memory, but instead sleep created new, harmless associations with the odor-face combination. The persons in the study who slept longer and received more treatment fared better in therapy results.
It was thought by the scientific world that memories experienced during sleep strengthen rather than weaken the learning process. However, Hauner explains that during a individual’s sleep, the repeated activation of a single fear works more closely to that of exposure therapy and less like haphazard memories triggered in the brain at night.
How long the sleep treatments will last on diminishing an individual’s fears will depend on more research being done to assist people in sleeping away the bad memories.
Written by Lisa Graziano