Scientists discover brain mechanism to prevent unwanted thoughts

Scientists have developed a mechanism to prevent individuals from remembering traumatic events.

The mechanism could be used to develop treatments for people suffering from disorders such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorders.

The research, which was carried out by academics at the University of Cambridge, involved studying the mechanism in the brain used to retrieve unwanted thoughts.

Professor Michael Anderson, a researcher who worked on the study explained that as humans “our ability to control our thoughts is fundamental to our wellbeing.”

He said that when this ability “breaks down” we can develop “psychiatric diseases” these can include “intrusive memories, images, hallucinations, ruminations, and pathological and persistent worries.”

The way that thought recall works is that a region in the front of our brain called the prefrontal cortex acts as a regulator between other brain regions.

As part of the study the researchers used a ‘Think/No-think’ procedure to assess the brain process used that allows the prefrontal cortex to control our thoughts.

During the Think/No-think task, participants were shown a series of words and told to associate them with another series of totally unrelated words – an example being moss/north.

In the next stage of the task, participants were asked to recall words when they saw a green cue and supress it if the cue was red.

By using an MRI scan, researchers were able to determine what parts of the brain were used in order to inhibit thoughts.

Scientists discovered that a chemical in the neuro transmitters in the brain known as GABA allow messages to pass between cells.

Scientists revealed that GABA concentrations within the key area of the brain involved in memory known as the hippocampus, predicts people’s ability to block memories.

Professor Anderson explained: “What’s exciting about this is that now we’re getting very specific.

“Before, we could only say ‘this part of the brain acts on that part’, but now we can say which neurotransmitters are likely important – and as a result, infer the role of inhibitory neurons – in enabling us to stop unwanted thoughts.

“Where previous research has focused on the prefrontal cortex – the command centre – we’ve shown that this is an incomplete picture.

“Inhibiting unwanted thoughts is as much about the cells within the hippocampus – the ‘boots on the ground’ that receive commands from the prefrontal cortex.”

Studies have shown that people who have PTSD, anxiety and chronic depression have higher levels of activity in the hippocampus.

Professor Anderson said that so far in their research “most of the focus has been on improving functioning of the prefrontal cortex.”

However she said that the latest study “suggests that if you could improve GABA activity within the hippocampus, this may help people to stop unwanted and intrusive thoughts.”

Therefore discoveries found in the latest research could be used to help treat individuals suffering from psychiatric diseases.


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