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This gas may erase bad memories

Sorry, Men in Black. Turns out using a neuralyzer to wipe away memories is overkill. Scientists now believe inhaling the right gas at the right time may do the trick.

Xenon gas lights this lamp and could one day erase bad memories. Creative Commons/Alchemist-hp/Wikimedia

Researchers at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts may have found a way to erase traumatic memories, and the technology is far less complicated than the fictional neuralyzers that the Men in Black run around zapping people with.

"In our study, we found that xenon gas has the capability of reducing memories of traumatic events," Edward G. Meloni, an assistant psychologist at the hospital and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said in a release. "It's an exciting breakthrough, as this has the potential to be a new treatment for individuals suffering from PTSD."

Xenon is currently used on humans for anesthesia and diagnostic imaging. Meloni and his colleagues tested a low concentration of xenon gas on rats who had been trained to fear certain environmental cues. The rats were then exposed to the same fear-triggering cues while also getting a hit of the gas simultaneously.

"We found that a single exposure to the gas, which is known to block NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) receptors involved in memory formation in the brain, dramatically and persistently reduced fear responses for up to two weeks. It was as though the animals no longer remembered to be afraid of those cues," Meloni said.

So, if you're following along here, the hope is that xenon could be used in therapy to treat conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder by having people recall their bad memories while taking in the gas. The key here is that each time you recall a memory, your brain actually treats it as though it were creating a new memory and xenon blocks that memory creation process.

It's a bit like pulling a paper record out of an old-school filing cabinet. If the filing cabinet is your memory bank and the paper is a traumatic memory, xenon is a guy who locks up the filing cabinet immediately after you take that single record out of it to review, preventing you from putting it back in your permanent storage system.

"The fact that we were able to inhibit remembering of a traumatic memory with xenon is very promising because it is currently used in humans for other purposes, and thus it could be repurposed to treat PTSD," added Marc J. Kaufman, director of the McLean Hospital Translational Imaging Laboratory.

There's still more work and testing that needs to be done to see how such a treatment might work in humans, but the pair is hopeful that xenon might eventually help reduce the flashbacks, nightmares, and distress that can plague those who suffer from PTSD.

The full study can be found here.