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Neuroscientists identify how trauma triggers long-lasting memories in the brain

Irvine, Calif., July 26, 2005 --A research team led by UC Irvine neuroscientists has identified how the brain processes and stores emotional experiences as long-term memories. The research, performed on rats, could help neuroscientists better understand why emotionally arousing events are remembered over longer periods than emotionally neutral events, and may ultimately find application in treatments for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The study shows that emotionally arousing events activate the brain's amygdala, the almond-shaped portion of the brain involved in emotional learning and memory, which then increases a protein called "Arc" in the neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in processing and enabling the storage of lasting memories. The researchers believe that Arc helps store these memories by strengthening the synapses, the connections between neurons.

The study will appear in today's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Emotionally neutral events generally are not stored as long-term memories," said Christa McIntyre, the first author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in UCI's School of Biological Sciences, working with James L. McGaugh, research professor and a fellow at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. "On the other hand, emotionally arousing events, such as those of September 11, tend to be well-remembered after a single experience because they activate the amygdala."

In their experiments, the researchers placed a group of rats in a well-lit compartment with access to an adjacent dark compartment. Because rats are nocturnal and prefer dark environments, they tended to enter the dark compartment. Upon doing so, however, they were each given a mild foot-shock an emotional experience that, by itself, was not strong enough to become a long-lasting memory. Some of the rats then had th
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Contact: Iqbal Pittalwala
iqbal@uci.edu
949-824-3969
University of California - Irvine
26-Jul-2005


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