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Sleep Brain Wave Key to Conquering Fear Memories

NIMH’s Dr. Aleksandra Vicentic comments on a NIMH-funded study that has pinpointed brainwave activity, deep in the brainstem of sleeping rodents, that signals successful consolidation of safety memories that override fear memories.

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VICENTIC: In the previous work, the common belief was that if one successfully learned the task and sleeps, then this successful learning will be consolidated. It would translate into better performance. But in his study, clearly, only animals that have expressed specific brainstem activity have shown successful learning or fear extinction – or consolidation of emotional memory. So this is that new ingredient that shows basically that specific brain activity during REM provides this kind of a neurobiological stage where this brain wave might be necessary for the brain to achieve this optimal incorporation of the new memory -- kind of a safety net. And to replace the previously fearful signal with the new safety cues.

For future therapies, these studies, I think, offer some potential clues about how we can manipulate this brainstem activity for the gains and to increase the successful outcomes of exposure therapy. However, I think we’re several steps removed from this immediate translation, simply because we do not have, currently, noninvasive methods for the easy manipulation of these activities.