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Painful Memories May Be Erasable, Study Suggests

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Bad memories are hard to shake. But a new study suggests some details can be intentionally forgotten, raising hope for people with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Scottish researchers used words like "barbecue" to cue memories in 30 young men and women, and then tested their ability to forget.

"For the cue word 'barbecue,' they might think of a birthday party," said study author Saima Noreen, a neuroscientist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  "Some of the memories were just embarrassing, like a school friend saying something unpleasant.  Others were more painful, like an inappropriate touch from a family friend."

For each of the 24 cue words, the study subjects were asked to recall a memory in as much detail as possible, explaining its cause, consequence and personal meaning.  A week later, they were shown the same cue words in green or red.

"For the green words, we asked them to describe the memory in detail like before.  But for the red words, we asked them to avoid thinking of the event," said Noreen.

That avoidance appeared to wipe out parts of the memory, as study subjects later asked to recall events linked to red-colored cue words omitted painful details.

"We found people were actually recalling significantly less about the memories they'd been told to suppress," said Noreen.  "Most of the time they recalled the event's cause, but the consequence and personal meaning were more susceptible to being forgotten."

The small study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, could have big implications for people plagued by painful memories.

"People with conditions like PTSD and depression have intrusive, uncontrollable negative thoughts that make them unable to move on with their lives," said Noreen, who became interested in intentional forgetting while studying depression.  "Our research suggests we can actually reduce or change the accessibility of certain details."

Previous studies have hinted at the ability to deliberately forget, but this is the first to find that painful details may be particularly susceptible to the process, according to Noreen.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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