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The Downside of Good Memory

Experiencing distressing memories of a shocking experience characterizes posttraumatic stress disorder.

Scientists from the University of Basel have now discovered that a genetic factor for good memory is also associated with a heightened risk for the development of a posttraumatic stress disorder in war victims. The findings of this study will be published this week in the American journal PNAS.

There are many advantages of having a good memory. Retaining what has been learned at school comes more easily, for example, or keys are less likely to be misplaced. But having a good memory could also have a downside, namely, when shocking experiences, such as a severe accident or a rape incident, are deeply engraved into the brain. When such traumatic experiences continue to exist as painful memories, they could increase the chance of a posttraumatic stress disorder developing.

Dominique de Quervain and Andreas Papassotiropoulos, from the transfaculty research platform "Molecular and Cognitive Neurosciences" and the Biozentrum of the University of Basel, have recently discovered that car al and neutral information were likewise better remembered. Furthermore, the scientists have found that the gene variant is associated with heightened activity in memory relevant regions of the brain. More than 1000 healthy persons took part in this study in Basel.

In a second part of this study, the researchers, together with the scientists Thomas Elbert from Konstanz and Iris-Tatjana Kolassa from Ulm, investigated the effect of the gene variant on traumatic memories in around 350 survivors of the genocide in Rwanda. The scientists found that the carriers of the identified gene variant experienced more distressing memories of the shocking events during the civil war and were more likely to suffer a posttraumatic stress disorder.

This study was able to show, for the first time, a genetic link between good memory and a heightened risk for psychological trauma and suggests that PKC alpha plays an important role in the regulation of memory processes. The current study was undertaken as part of a project directed by de Quervain and Papassotiropoulos.

Neurobiological mechanism of human memory
The project, "Neurobiological mechanism of human memory" is being led by Prof. Andreas Papassotiropoulos, Director of the Division of Molecular Neuroscience and Prof. Dominique de Quervain, Director of the Division of Cognitive Neurosciences at the University of Basel. Among the goals of this project are the identification of neurobiological and molecular mechanisms of human memory and the development of new strategies for the treatment of memory disorders. This interdisciplinary project is the scientific core of the transfaculty research platform "Molecular and Cognitive Neurosciences" at the University of Basel.
Original Article
Dominique J.-F. de Quervain, Iris-Tatjana Kolassa, Sandra Ackermann, Amanda Aerni, Peter Boesiger, Philippe Demougin, Thomas Elbert, Verena Ertl, Leo Gschwind, Nils Hadziselimovic, Edveena Hanser, Angela Heck, Petra Hieber, Kim-Dung Huynh, Markus Klarhöfer, Roger Luechinger, Björn Rasch, Klaus Scheffler, Klara Spalek, Christoph Stippich, Christian Vogler, Vanja Vukojevic, Attila Stetak, and Andreas Papassotiropoulos
PKCα is genetically linked to memory capacity in healthy subjects and to risk for posttraumatic stress disorder in genocide survivors

PNAS 2012 ; published ahead of print May 14, 2012 | doi:10.1073/pnas.1200857109

Media contact
Prof. Dr. Andreas Papassotiropoulos, University of Basel, Division of Molecular Neuroscience, Tel: +41 61 267 0599 (direct), +41 61 267 0588 (secretary), E-mail:

Prof. Dr. Dominique J.-F. de Quervain, University of Basel, Division of Cognitive Neuroscience, Tel:+41 61 267 0237 (direct), +41 61 267 02 38 (secretary), E-mail:

Reto Caluori | idw
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