New Research May Help Victims of Traumatic Abuse

by John McKiggan

Memories of Abuse
As a lawyer who helps people with sexual abuse compensation claims one of the most common challenges my clients face is dealing with the intrusive effects of the memories of their abuse.

In the text Principles of Trauma Therapy: A Guide to Symptoms, Evaluation, and Treatment the authors John Briere and Catherine Scott identify several areas where memories of childhood abuse may effect psychological function in adults:

Negative pre-verbal assumptions and relational schemata: In other words, children who are victims of abuse tend to have a disproportionately negative self image. As adults, survivors become too defensive, angry or disconnected to have healthy inter-personal relationships.

Conditioned emotional responses to abuse-related stimuli: Certain experiences, words or settings may trigger memories of the abuse resulting in uncontrollable emotional reactions of shame, grief or anger.

Implicit/sensory memories of abuse: Professionals believe that memories of abuse may be stored or coded differently so that when the memories are triggered they bring with them the same physical sensantions the survivor experiences as a child. These “flashbacks” force the survivor to physically re-live the abuse.

Inadequately developed affect regulation skills: Survivors of abuse are often overwhelmed by routine daily situations and relationships. As a result they cope by using “avoidant” patterns (self-medication, self-harm, withdrawal) to decrease the pain of their past abuse.

Controlling Memories?

A new study from the University of Western Ontario may help victims of traumatic experiences like childhood abuse.

The research by Nicole Lauzon, a PhD candidate at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine, suggests that the pre-limbic cortex, one of the most primative parts of our brain, helps control the recall of memories linked to certain experiences. The researchers demonstrated that they were able to suppress the spontaneous recall of memories, without altering the memories.

The researchers used rats in their experiment. They discovered that by stimulating a type of dopamine receptor in the rat’s brain they could prevent the recall of certain memories. Speaking about the potential use of her research, Lauzon says:

“If we are able to block the recall of those memories, then potentially we have a target for drugs to treat these disorders.”

Not Like the Movies

Lauzon explains:

“In the movie, ‘Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind,’ they attempted to permanently erase memories associated with emotional experiences. The interesting thing about our findings is that we were able to prevent the spontaneous recall of these memories, but the memories were still intact. We weren’t inducing any form of brain damage or actually affecting the integrity of the original memories.”

In other words, survivors of traumatic events can access the memories when they need to, but the memories are not triggered spontaneously when the survivor may not be ready and able to cope with them.

Treatment for Abuse Survivors?

The current treatment methods for childhood sexual abuse survivors centers around creating or teaching a means for them to cope with traumatic memories so they become less disruptive over time.

This new study could have huge implications for sexual abuse survivors because it may provide a way to stop traumatic memories from spontaneously occuring and causing distress.

Early Days

Obviously there is a big difference between rats and humans. But I look forward to reading more about Lauzon’s research.

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