Preliminary evidence that stress makes negative memories less distinctive, with implications for witness testimony

Studies on stress and memory have often given conflicting results.

stress can affect the clarity of memories
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Stress has complicated effects on our memories.


Whereas some studies have found that we are better at remembering events that occurred during stressful situations, such as while watching disturbing videos, others have shown that stress impairs memory. Now a study published in Brain and Cognitionsuggests that stress doesn't influence the strength of our emotional memories at all. Instead, the researchers claim, it is the fidelity of those memories – how distinct and precise they are – that changes when we go through stressful experiences.

Maheen Shermohammeda from Harvard University and colleagues recruited 56 young adults between 18 and 23, and asked them to view a series of negative and neutral pictures. That might seem painless enough – except that half of the participants looked at the pictures while feeling rather stressed. Before they began looking at the pictures, they were told that they would later have to give a speech to a panel of judges. To make matters worse, before seeing each block of pictures they had to complete complicated maths problems. They were given just a short time to complete these, and while doing so they were told that they were performing poorly and their data would be unusable if they didn't do well. In contrast, the control group had a fairly relaxing time: instead of a speech, they were told they would have to write a story, and they only had to complete simple maths problems at their own pace.

About two weeks later, all the participants were given a surprise memory task, in which they again saw the earlier pictures alongside new images they hadn't seen before. They had to indicate whether each picture was an old one that had been in the original task or a new image they hadn't seen before.

At several points throughout the study, all participants were asked how stressed they were, and also had their heart rate measured and saliva samples taken to analyse levels of the stress hormone cortisol. As expected, the group that went through the stressful experience reported higher levels of stress, and had increased heart rates and cortisol levels (although the team had to exclude a handful of participants who, surprisingly, didn't report feeling stressed).

Overall, participants in both groups were better at remembering negative images – this replicates a well-established finding that emotional material tends to be more memorable. Also, the stressed group correctly remembered just as many of the earlier images as the control group (i.e. their "hit rate" was the same). Crucially, where the groups differed was in their patterns of "false alarms" – how often they falsely remembered new images as being from the original task. The stressed participants were more prone to false alarms for negative images compared neutral images, and the more stressed they were, the larger this difference.The control group didn't show any difference between the two kinds of images.

Based on these results, the researchers suggest it's not the strength of our memories that is influenced by stress, but rather their fidelity, or how distinct they are from other information. For the stressed group, neutral memories became more distinct, making it easier to distinguish them from new neutral material, while negative memories were more vague or blurred, making it harder to distinguish them from new negative material. The results demonstrate the importance of separating out memory into its constituent parts (strength and fidelity), the researchers add, rather than just looking at overall performance or correct "hits".

It's clearly a rather preliminary result. The pool of participants was small to begin with, and made even smaller after the researchers had to remove those participants who didn't respond to their stress intervention. And the participants all came from a very young, narrow age range, raising the question of whether older people respond in similar ways.

Nevertheless, the idea that stress has different effects on different components of memory is an interesting proposition that deserves further attention – particularly as understanding memory during periods of stress has important real-world implications for situations like eyewitness accounts of crimes. For example, the researchers said, a "stressed witness to [a] crime … may indeed have a strong recollection of the criminal, but may also have an impoverished ability to discriminate the assailant from other individuals in a police lineup."

Stress impacts the fidelity but not strength of emotional memories

Matthew Warren (@MattbWarren) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest.

Reprinted with permission of The British Psychological Society. Read the original article.

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Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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