In Summary

  • If the effects of alcohol on memories to fearful responses are similar in humans to what we observe in mice, then it seems that our work helps us better understand how traumatic memories form and how to target better therapies for people in therapy for PTSD.

EXPERIMENTS IN MICE by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the US suggest that if the goal is to ease or extinguish fearful memories like those associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol may make things worse, not better, the institution said in a press release on Tuesday.

It is estimated that 60 to 80 per cent of people with PTSD binge-drink as a means of self-medication.

Results of the Johns Hopkins study demonstrate, the researchers say, that alcohol strengthens emotional memories associated with fearful experiences and prevents mice from pushing aside their fears. In a summary of their findings, published online in the journal Translational Psychiatry, they say their experiments also identified what they believe is the molecular mechanism responsible for alcohol-related fear relapses and successfully used a drug called perampanel – currently used to treat epileptic seizures – that reverses the malingering effects.

“If the effects of alcohol on memories to fearful responses are similar in humans to what we observe in mice, then it seems that our work helps us better understand how traumatic memories form and how to target better therapies for people in therapy for PTSD, Norman Haughey, professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says.

“In fact, binge drinking or other attempts to use alcohol to self-medicate could be sabotaging any therapy efforts (sic).”

Haughey’s team plans to continue examining the details of this pathway under varying conditions.

He says: “The reality is that people with PTSD are a lot more complex than mice in a lab, and someone with PTSD may be on a variety of antianxiety medications, antidepressants or even sleep aids. These drugs, together with alcohol, may affect the ability to let go of fearful memories in different ways”.

The study is titled “Hippocampal encoding of interoceptive context during fear conditioning”.