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What neuroscience can tell us about PTSD and how to rewrite our memories

| June 20, 2014

One morning every spring, for exactly two minutes, Israel comes to a stop. Pedestrians stand in place, drivers pull over to the side of the road, and nobody speaks, sings, eats, or drinks as the nation pays respect to the victims of the Nazi genocide. From the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, the only sounds one hears are sirens.

“To ignore those sirens is a complete violation of the norms of our country,” Daniela Schiller told me recently.

Schiller, who directs the laboratory of affective neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has lived in New York for nine years, but she was brought up in Rishon LeZion, a few miles south of Tel Aviv.

“My father doesn’t care about the sirens,” she says. “The day doesn’t exist for him. He moves about as if he hears nothing.”

Sigmund Schiller’s disregard for Holocaust Remembrance Day is perhaps understandable; he spent the first two years of the Second World War in the Horodenka ghetto (at the time in Poland, but now in Ukraine) and the next two hiding in bunkers scattered across the forests of Galicia. In 1942, at the age of 15, he was captured by the Germans and sent to a labor camp near Tluste, where he managed to survive the war.

Trauma victims frequently attempt to cordon off their most painful memories. But Sigmund Schiller never seemed to speak about his time in the camp, not even to his wife.

More than 5 percent of Americans have experienced some form of post-traumatic stress disorder; for combat veterans, like those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, the figure is even higher. Millions of others suffer from profound anxiety, debilitating phobias, and the cravings of addiction; those emotions appear to be formed in the same neural pathways, which means that a successful treatment for one condition might also work for others.

Behavioral therapies, even those which work initially, often fail. Relapses are common, and the need for more successful treatments has never been so acute. New approaches are hard to develop, though, because most of what is known about the human brain has come from studying the neurons of other animals.

One can’t simply stick a needle into somebody’s brain, grab a few neurons, drop them in a nutrient bath, and see what happens. PET scans and functional-magnetic-resonance-imaging machines have helped address the problem; they permit neuroscientists to monitor metabolic changes and blood flow in the human brain. But neither of them can measure the activity of neurons directly.

Read the full, original story: Partial Recall

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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