Inhibiting Human Aversive Memory by Transcranial Theta-Burst Stimulation to the Primary Sensory Cortex

SOURCE: Biological Psychiatry. 92(2):149-157, 2022 Jul 15.

AUTHORS: Ojala KE; Staib M; Gerster S; Ruff CC; Bach DR

BACKGROUND: Predicting adverse events from past experience is fundamental for many biological organisms. However, some individuals suffer from maladaptive memories that impair behavioral control and well-being, e.g., after psychological trauma. Inhibiting the formation and maintenance of
such memories would have high clinical relevance. Previous preclinical research has focused on systemically administered pharmacological interventions, which cannot be targeted to specific neural circuits in humans. Here, we investigated the potential of noninvasive neural stimulation on the human sensory cortex in inhibiting aversive memory in a laboratory threat conditioning model.

METHODS: We build on an emerging nonhuman literature suggesting that primary sensory cortices may be crucially required for threat memory formation and consolidation. Immediately before conditioning innocuous somatosensory stimuli (conditioned stimuli [CS]) to aversive electric stimulation, healthy human participants received continuous theta-burst transcranial magnetic stimulation (cTBS) to individually localized primary somatosensory cortex in either the CS-contralateral (experimental) or CS-ipsilateral (control) hemisphere. We measured fear-potentiated startle to infer threat memory retention on the next day, as well as skin conductance and pupil size during learning.

RESULTS: After overnight consolidation, threat memory was attenuated in the experimental group compared with the control cTBS group. There was no evidence that this differed between simple and complex CS or that CS identification or initial learning were affected by cTBS.

CONCLUSIONS: Our results suggest that cTBS to the primary sensory cortex inhibits threat memory, likely by an impact on postlearning consolidation. We propose that noninvasive targeted stimulation of the sensory cortex may provide a new avenue for interfering with aversive memories in humans.