Now, a group of German, Israeli and British scientists and students have found that a gene-based approach offers promise for development of a treatment that can suppress these reactions, while not impairing memory itself.
In an article appearing as the cover story in the current issue of Molecular Psychiatry, a team of researchers from the Silberman Institute of Life Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Goettingen, Germany, describe their work with mice who were subjected to stressful conditions.
The team discovered that this stress induces a change in the expression of the acetylcholinesterase gene. Under normal circumstances, this gene produces a vital protein that adheres to neuronal synapses (the interaction sites through which nerve cells communicate with each other). Following stress, however, the same gene produces large quantities of a protein with modified properties that results in heightened electrical signals in the nerve cells communicating through these synapses. The effect is to create reactions of extreme fright or immobilizing shock.
Later encounter with a context which arouses those stressful memories - which might be an object, a sound, an image or other form of association -- can set off that same neuronal reaction. Often, this reaction can have serious consequences, such as chronic fatigue or personality disorders, including post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the U.S., it is estimated that more than 15 million people a year are identified with PTSD or other anxiety disorders.
The research team at the Hebrew University and in Germany and Britain has succeeded in developing an "antisense" agent that acts to neutralize the process whereby the modified protein is produced, thereby preventing the "extreme" reaction associated with traumatic memory-inducing stimuli.
The researchers from the Hebrew University involved in the project are Prof. Hermona Soreq, who heads the Eric Roland Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, plus Dr. Binyamin Hochner and graduate students Noa Farchi and Ella H. Sklan. Also participating was Dr. Shai Shoham of Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem. From the Max Planck Institute, the participants are Prof. Joachim Spiess, Dr. Thomas Blank and Ph.D. students Ingrid Nijholt and Min-Jeong Kye. Involved with the work also were Birgit Verbeure and David Owen of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, England.
The object of the research is not to erase memory, emphasizes Prof. Soreq - since memory of dangerous situations or circumstances can be beneficial for survival - but rather to develop a drug that would block the harmful reactions of those suffering from recurring stress symptoms due to lingering memories of past traumatic experiences. Until now there has been no drug to treat the core of the post-stress problem, but rather only its symptoms.
Working towards creating a commercial medicinal product based on the research is Ester Neuroscience, a startup company in Tel Aviv, with backing from the Medica Venture Capital Fund, by agreement with the Yissum Research Development Company of the Hebrew University.