Neural Mechanisms Underlying Memory Control

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge

Abstract

We have all had moments in which an object or event reminds us of an experience that we would prefer not think about. When this happens, we often attempt to stop retrieval and exclude the unpleasant reminding from awareness. Such efforts at memory control are an unfortunately ubiquitous experience in the aftermath of trauma. This project seeks to understand the cognitive and neural mechanisms that enable people to control unwanted memories. The basic research will develop a theoretical framework for understanding how people control intrusive remindings by facilitating a deeper understanding of how attention interacts with long-term memory. A core hypothesis of this framework is that people engage mechanisms similar to those involved in suppressing reflexive actions to suppress memory retrieval, reducing activity in brain structures involved in memory, reducing a memory’s intrusiveness. Basic research specifying the cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms of memory control has the promise to inform theories of clinical syndromes characterized by disordered thought control such as PTSD (intrusive flashbacks), depression (unwanted ruminations), ADHD (distractability), obsessive compulsive disorder (obsessive thoughts) and addiction (craving related thoughts). In so doing, the current work could have a substantial positive impact on our ability to provide treatment to those suffering from such disorders.

Technical Summary

This project seeks to understand the cognitive and neural mechanisms that enable people to control unwanted memories. Recent work by Anderson has found that when people confront a reminder to an experience that they would prefer not to think about, they engage executive control mechanisms often recruited to override prepotent motor responses to suppress retrieval. This work has led to a theoretical perspective in which memory control is accomplished by an attention system that interacts with memory and that is governed by principles and components isomorphic to those involved in perceptual orienting of attention. A key process is attentional inhibition, which is triggered by conflict between the goal-directed focus of attention and the focus demanded by reflexive orienting to abrupt onsets in mnemonic space. Attentional inhibition is conceptualized as a flexible component of task set that can be recruited when conflict is expected or present, to override reflexive memorial orienting. The current project aims to evaluate key hypotheses, including (a) the hippocampal modulation hypothesis, according to which memory control is affected by down-regulating mnemonic activity in the hippocampus, (b) the mnemonic attention hypothesis, in which memory intrusions constitute cases of mnemonic reflexive orienting that build on the same neural mechanisms engaged to reflexively orient attention to events in the perceptual world, (c) the response override hypothesis, in which mnemonic control is accomplished by brain mechanisms involved in overriding prepotent motor actions, and (d) the motivated forgetting hypothesis, in which memory control mechanisms lead to selective forgetting of unwanted events. The approach to this question will combine traditional cognitive methods, developed by Anderson, a new approach to measuring intrusions, as well as fMRI and EEG. If correct, this view stands to forge a highly specific connection between research on attention and long-term memory that will move beyond the simple observation that attention can be directed to memory to the nature of mnemonic attention system itself. This work will specify a rich framework in which to understand how people control unwanted memories of the past. Such insights are not merely of theoretical significance, but of potentially profound practical importance in understanding and ameliorating the conditions of those suffering from intrusive memories.

Publications

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Littel M (2019) No evidence for the inverted U-Curve: More demanding dual tasks cause stronger aversive memory degradation. in Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry

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Nardo D (2019) Left hemispatial neglect and overt orienting in naturalistic conditions: Role of high-level and stimulus-driven signals. in Cortex; a journal devoted to the study of the nervous system and behavior

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Schmitz TW (2017) Hippocampal GABA enables inhibitory control over unwanted thoughts. in Nature communications

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Taubenfeld A (2019) The impact of retrieval suppression on conceptual implicit memory. in Memory (Hove, England)

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Van Schie K (2019) The effects of dual-tasks on intrusive memories following analogue trauma. in Behaviour research and therapy

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Van Veen SC (2019) On EMDR: Measuring the working memory taxation of various types of eye (non-)movement conditions. in Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry

 
Description Emerging Research Leader's Development Programme (ERLDP)
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Enrolled in the Emerging Research Leader's Development Programme (ERLDP) offered by the University of Cambridge. The program was composed of 4 sessions (3 workshops and 1 chalk talk).
 
Description Talk at the Royal Society Workshop on Human Transformation and Digital Technologies
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
 
Description BrainStorm Neuroscience Pitch Competition 2018
Amount $30,000 (USD)
Organisation Mind Science Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United States
Start 10/2018 
End 09/2021
 
Description CHU Caen Normandy Mobility Fund
Amount € 25,000 (EUR)
Organisation University Hospital Centre Caen (CHU Caen) 
Sector Academic/University
Country France
Start 04/2020 
End 04/2021
 
Description Cambridge International Scholarship
Amount £45,000 (GBP)
Organisation Cambridge Commonwealth Trust 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2019 
End 09/2022
 
Description EPS Study Visit Grant
Amount £1,000 (GBP)
Organisation Experimental Psychology Society (EPS) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2020 
End 05/2020
 
Description Experimental Psychology Society Travel Grant
Amount £150 (GBP)
Organisation Experimental Psychology Society (EPS) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 01/2019
 
Description MRC PhD studentship
Amount £91,484 (GBP)
Organisation Medical Research Council (MRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2018 
End 10/2022
 
Description NWO Rubicon grant
Amount € 180,000 (EUR)
Funding ID 019.183SG.007 
Organisation Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) 
Sector Public
Country Netherlands
Start 09/2019 
End 08/2021
 
Description Proteintech Bursary, British Neuroscience Association
Amount £200 (GBP)
Organisation British Neuroscience Association 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2019 
End 04/2019
 
Description Royal Society Newton Fellowship
Amount £66,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2017 
End 11/2019
 
Description Vice Chancellor's Award
Amount £68,613 (GBP)
Organisation Cambridge Commonwealth Trust 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2018 
End 09/2021
 
Description A simultaneous EEG/fMRI study of the ability to suppress unwanted thoughts. 
Organisation Southwest University
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We contributed to the design of the study, and trained researchers to run it. We are analysing the data in depth We will write the papers
Collaborator Contribution They implemented and ran the study, and contributed to its analysis.
Impact none yet
Start Year 2016
 
Description Cross-cultural study of autobiographical retrieval induced forgetting 
Organisation University of Granada
Country Spain 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution To be filled in...
Collaborator Contribution To be filled in...
Impact To be filled in...
Start Year 2019
 
Description Effects of hormonal variation during the menstrual cycle on the ability to control unwanted thoughts 
Organisation Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Country Israel 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution To be filled in...
Collaborator Contribution To be filled in...
Impact To be filled in...
Start Year 2019
 
Description Isolating a Beta Signature of Inhibitory Control over Thought with Time Frequency Analysis 
Organisation University of California, San Diego (UCSD)
Department Department of Psychology
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I collaborated with Adam Aron to design the study and trained his student. I guided the interpretation of the study.
Collaborator Contribution They contributed to the design of the study, ran the study, and analysed it, and now they are writing it up.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2017
 
Description Pathways underlying suppression of amygdala activity during the control of unwanted memories 
Organisation Boston University
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution To be filled in...
Collaborator Contribution To be filled in...
Impact To be filled in...
Start Year 2018
 
Description The effect of sleep deprivation on the ability to suppress intrusive thoughts 
Organisation University of York
Department Department of Psychology
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We supplied the materials, procedure, code, and design for the study.
Collaborator Contribution The collaborators are skilled sleep researchers. They implemented and conducted the study in a sleep lab, with EEG recordings, and are analysing and writing up the data.
Impact None yet.
Start Year 2017
 
Description The role of disturbed memory inhibition in obsessive compulsive disorder 
Organisation University of Cambridge
Department Department of Psychology
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution To be filled in...
Collaborator Contribution To be filled in...
Impact To be filled in...
Start Year 2019
 
Description The role of memory inhibition in disrupted reconsolidation 
Organisation Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya
Department Baruch Ivchur School of Psychology
Country Israel 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution To be filled in...
Collaborator Contribution To be filled in...
Impact To be filled in...
Start Year 2018
 
Description The role of retrieval-induced forgetting in regulating emotions -- an fMRI study 
Organisation Peking University
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution To be filled in...
Collaborator Contribution To be filled in...
Impact To be filled in...
Start Year 2019
 
Description The role of the medial temporal lobes in memory 
Organisation King's College London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Data analysis, interpretation of results, preparing manuscripts for publication.
Collaborator Contribution Data sharing, data analysis, interpretation of results, preparation of reports and publications.
Impact No additional publication yet, though several manuscripts are in preparation.
Start Year 2012
 
Description The role of the medial temporal lobes in memory 
Organisation University of Manchester
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Data analysis, interpretation of results, preparing manuscripts for publication.
Collaborator Contribution Data sharing, data analysis, interpretation of results, preparation of reports and publications.
Impact No additional publication yet, though several manuscripts are in preparation.
Start Year 2012
 
Description Using pupilometry to measure the dynamics of memory control 
Organisation Memorial University of Newfoundland
Country Canada 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We contributed the materials and design of the study, and trained the researchers. We will contribute to the interpretation of the data.
Collaborator Contribution They contributed to the design of the study and the pupilometry methods. They are running the study and analysing it, and writing it up.
Impact none yet
Start Year 2017
 
Description The forgotten part of memory 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Dr Anderson interviewed about the ability to forget by scientific journalist Lauren Gravitz
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02211-5
 
Description Why Forgetfulness Might Actually Help You 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Why Forgetfulness Might Actually Help You. By Sue Shellenbarger, The Wall Street Journal. January 22, 2019
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description "New Memory Science Shows That Sometimes, It's Better To Forget" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Radio interview/discussion given to Texas Public Radio
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description BrainBus school visits 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Subbulakshmi Sankarasubramanian participated in BrainBus visiting two schools providing outreach experience to underprivileged children, exposing them to subjects, careers and role models which they would not otherwise access.
Laura Marsh was part of the BrainBus team, held design and deliver neuroscience outreach project in primary schools.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/brain-bus/
 
Description CamBrain, Cambridge Neuroscience 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact Laura Marsh was on the committee for CamBrain, the student division of the Cambridge Neuroscience Network.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Can't stop thinking unwanted thoughts? This could be why 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Can't stop thinking unwanted thoughts? This could be why. By Michael Harthorne, Fox News, November 6, 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Creative Reactions at Pint of Science 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Laura Marsh was on the organisation committee for the 2019 'Creative Reactions' event, which is an art-science collaboration that happens annually as part of Pint of Science. We organised an exhibition of artworks that were produced by over 50 artist-scientist collaborations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description For some, experiencing trauma may act as a form of cognitive training that increases their mental control 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact For some, experiencing trauma may act as a form of cognitive training that increases their mental control. By Emma Young, BPS Research Digest, August 22, 2018
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description How Your Brain Helps You Stop Thinking About Something 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact How Your Brain Helps You Stop Thinking About Something. By Kastalia Medrano, Newsweek, November 3, 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description How alcohol, time and trying to forget trauma can change what we remember 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact How alcohol, time and trying to forget trauma can change what we remember. By Nsikan Akpan, PBSO News Hours, September 27, 2018
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description How training rats to forget can help humans 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Dr Michael Anderson on 'Science in Action' show 'Our Geological Junk' (BBC) discussing the similarities between the way rats and human forget, and how understanding the active forgetting mechanisms could help in treating traumatic conditions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Keeping a spotless mind: the neuroscience of motivated forgetting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I took part in an "open to the public" conference on the nature of forgetting, in which I joined 8 other scientists to give talks on forgetting to an audience of practitioners and students.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit Open Day 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Conducted a demonstration about our research in Memory Control Lab (e.g., 12 visitors performed the retrieval-induced forgetting task)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit's science night and open day 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Laura Marsh Volunteered for the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit's science night and open day.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/blog/2019/01/mrc-cbu-science-night-cambridge-science-festival-2019/
 
Description Mind Science Foundation's Brainstorm 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Supporters
Results and Impact Subbulakshmi Sankarasubramanian participated and spoke at the Mind Science Foundation's Brainstorm 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://mindscience.org/programs-initiatives/brainstorm/
 
Description Need To Forget A Memory? Focus On A Competing One, New Study 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Need To Forget A Memory? Focus On A Competing One, New Study. By Andréa Morris, Forbes, November 07, 2018
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Neuroscientists have discovered an important clue about how we push away negative thoughts 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Neuroscientists have discovered an important clue about how we push away negative thoughts. By Erin Brodwin, Business Insider UK, November 7, 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Newton International Fellows induction day at the Royal Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Dr Maite Crespo-Garcia was invited to take part in the Research Spotlights session during the Newton International Fellows induction day at the Royal Society in London in May 13th, 2019. Delivered a flash presentation about her work to a broad audience of researchers from different disciplines.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Pembroke Circle Talk at Pembroke College 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact To communicate the science of our laboratory to members of the Pembroke college broader community
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.pem.cam.ac.uk/college/events/pembroke-circle-lecture
 
Description Pint of Science 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Dr Maite Crespo-Garcia contributed to the Pint of Science event that was organized in Cambridge in May 22nd, 2019. She was one of the speakers of the Beautiful Mind section, within a part called "Forget what you know about memory". The talk was entitled "The bright life of forgetting". The event also included a "Creative Reactions" section where an artist made artworks based on his interpretation of the talk.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Researchers uncover a brain process that may help explain the curse of uncontrollable thoughts 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Researchers uncover a brain process that may help explain the curse of uncontrollable thoughts. By Alex Fradera, BPS Research Digest, December 19, 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Science Fiction Double Feature Podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Dr Michael Anderson discusses motivated forgetting and memory.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://blogendorff.com/2019/07/08/episode-14-book-of-m/
 
Description Scientists find key to unwanted thoughts 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Scientists find key to unwanted thoughts. BBC News, November 3, 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description The science of forgetting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact "Of course, severe memory loss can be devastating, but forgetting isn't always a bad thing. Some memories are painful or distracting to remember, and an ability to suppress these memories can be useful. Katie Haylor met forgetting expert Michael Anderson from Cambridge University."
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Trinity College Medical Society Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Medical students interested in neuroscience
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020