Many articles about memory reconsolidation conclude with its therapeutic implications for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A core feature of PTSD is the memory of a traumatic event that is characterized by excessive strength, immalleability, and persistence. We found that Korean and World War II veterans with PTSD showed elevated physiological responses during mental imagery of their personal combat events as long as 40 years later (Orr et al., 1993). We have hypothesized that traumatic memories in PTSD become “overconsolidated” under the influence of stress hormones stimulated by the traumatic event (Pitman, 1989). Traditional theory holds that once a memory has been consolidated, i.e., placed into long-term storage, it exists as a permanent trace. According to this view, the most one can hope for therapeutically would be to inhibit the memory’s expression through a mechanism such as extinction, but this inhibition is fragile, and the associated distress and arousal may return. Years ago we consulted on the case of a veteran who was admitted to the hospital for low back pain. Following World War II, he had experienced a year of nightmares and flashbacks of his combat experiences. With time these symptoms remitted, and he had been symptom free for 30 years. The medical work-up for his back pain revealed carcinoma of the prostate metastatic to the vertebrae, a fatal condition. The night after the patient was presented with this diagnosis, he experienced nightmares, not of his cancer or its future consequences, but of combat. This reinstatement of his combat memories by the stress of his cancer diagnosis indicated that they had not been erased but only had become latent.
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