A study that provided evidence for basic principles of Primal Therapy

This 2015 Northwestern rodent study found:

“Fear-inducing memories can be state dependent, meaning that they can best be retrieved if the brain states at encoding and retrieval are similar.

Memories formed in a particular mood, arousal or drug-induced state can best be retrieved when the brain is back in that state.

“It’s difficult for therapists to help these patients,” Radulovic said, “because the patients themselves can’t remember their traumatic experiences that are the root cause of their symptoms.”

The best way to access the memories in this system is to return the brain to the same state of consciousness as when the memory was encoded.”

The study demonstrated one method of activating neurobiological pathways with a drug to remove a hippocampal memory’s protection, which played a part in enabling the subjects to relive their remembered experiences. This rodent study wasn’t designed to address how to therapeutically access similarly protected memories with humans.

The study informed us with evidence for fundamentals of Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy, such as:

  • Experiences associated with pain can be remembered below our conscious awareness.
  • The retrieval and re-experiencing of emotional memories can engage our lower-level brain areas without our higher-level brain areas’ participation.

From the Northwestern press release:

“There are two kinds of GABA [gamma-Aminobutyric acid] receptors. One kind, synaptic GABA receptors, works in tandem with glutamate receptors to balance the excitation of the brain in response to external events such as stress.

The other population, extra-synaptic GABA receptors, are independent agents.

If a traumatic event occurs when these extra-synaptic GABA receptors are activated, the memory of this event cannot be accessed unless these receptors are activated once again.

“It’s an entirely different system even at the genetic and molecular level than the one that encodes normal memories,” said lead study author Vladimir Jovasevic, who worked on the study when he was a postdoctoral fellow in Radulovic’s lab.

This different system is regulated by a small microRNA, miR-33, and may be the brain’s protective mechanism when an experience is overwhelmingly stressful.

The findings imply that in response to traumatic stress, some individuals, instead of activating the glutamate system to store memories, activate the extra-synaptic GABA system and form inaccessible traumatic memories.”

I’d point out that the “can’t remember” and “inaccessible traumatic memories” phrases used above were in reference to what’s usually called “memory” i.e., a recall initiated using the cerebrum. The study’s findings should inform researchers who perform memory studies involving the hippocampus if they care to understand how emotional memories can be formed and re-experienced.


The obvious nature of this study’s straightforward experimental methods made me wonder why other researchers hadn’t used the same methods decades ago. It could have resulted in dozens of informative follow-on study variations by now, and subsequently found whether the subjects’ physiological, behavioral, and genetic measurements differed from control group subjects, as in:

miR-33 is downregulated in response to gaboxadol [the drug used to change the subjects’ brain state] and modulates its effects on state-dependent fear.

http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v18/n9/full/nn.4084.html “GABAergic mechanisms regulated by miR-33 encode state-dependent fear”

MP3 with lead researcher Dr. Jelena Radulovic: http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/specials/show/20150825/

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