Whether memories can be suppressed has been a controversial issue in psychology and cognitive neuroscience for decades. We found evidence that emotional memories are suppressed via two time-differentiated neural mechanisms: (i) an initial suppression by the right inferior frontal gyrus over regions supporting sensory components of the memory representation (visual cortex, thalamus), followed by (ii) right medial frontal gyrus control over regions supporting multimodal and emotional components of the memory representation (hippocampus, amygdala), both of which are influenced by fronto-polar regions. These results indicate that memory suppression does occur and, at least in nonpsychiatric populations, is under the control of prefrontal regions.They used used a Think/No-Think paradigm (T/NT) in which individuals attempt to elaborate a memory by repetitively thinking of it (T condition) or to suppress a memory by repetitively not letting it enter consciousness (NT condition).
Fig. 1. (A) Experimental procedure. Individuals were first trained during structural scanning to associate 40 cue-target pairs. During the experimental phase, brain activity was recorded using fMRI while individuals viewed only the face (16 faces per condition, 12 repetitions per face; 3.5 s per face). On some trials they were instructed to think of the previously learned picture; on other trials they were instructed not to let the previously associated picture enter consciousness. The presentation of only the cue (i.e., the face) ensures that individuals manipulate the memory of the target picture. The additional faces (8 items) not shown during this phase acted as a behavioral baseline. During the test phase, the individuals were shown the 40 faces and asked to describe the previously associated picture. (B) Behavioral results: percentage recall for each participant for T trials (green) and NT trials (red), with the dotted line indicating baseline recall for items not viewed in the experimental phase.Here is the last portion of their discussion:
Fig. 2. Functional activation of brain areas involved in (A) cognitive control, (B) sensory representations of memory, and (C) memory processes and emotional components of memory (rSFG, right superior frontal gyrus; rMFG, right middle frontal gyrus; rIFG, right inferior frontal gyrus; Pul, pulvinar; FG, fusiform gyrus; Hip, hippocampus; Amy, amygdala). Red indicates greater activity for NT trials than for T trials; blue indicates the reverse. Conjunction analyses revealed that areas seen in blue are the culmination of increased activity for T trials above baseline as well as decreased activity of NT trials below baseline.
At a broader level, our findings extend research suggesting that prefrontal brain areas associated with inhibitory mechanisms (BA 10 and superior, inferior, and middle FG) are lateralized predominantly to the right hemisphere. We have shown the involvement of these areas in the suppression of emotional memories, which replicates current literature suggesting that these areas are active in the suppression of emotional reactivity. Activity in these brain areas, along with inhibition over Hip and Amy, suggests that suppression of emotional memories may use mechanisms similar to those used in emotion regulation. Thus, various right-lateralized PFC areas may be involved in coordinating suppression processes across many behavioral domains, including memory retrieval, motor processes, feelings of social rejection, self motives, and state emotional reactivity.
Our findings may have implications for therapeutic approaches to disorders involving the inability to suppress emotionally distressing memories and thoughts, including PTSD, phobias, ruminative depression/anxiety, and OCD. They provide the possibility for approaches to controlling memories by suppressing sensory aspects of memory and/or by strengthening cognitive control over memory and emotional processes through repeated practice. Refinement of therapeutic procedures based on these distinct means of manipulating emotional memory might be an exciting and fruitful development in future clinical research.
Our results suggest that effective voluntary suppression of emotional memory only develops with repeated attempts to cognitively control posterior brain areas underlying instantiated memories. In this sense, memory suppression may best be conceived as a dynamic process in which the brain acquires multiple modulatory influences to reduce the likelihood of retrieving unwanted memories.