Human Memory Reconsolidation: A Guiding Framework and Critical Review of the Evidence

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Abstract

Research in nonhuman animals suggests that reactivation can induce a transient, unstable state in a previously consolidated memory, during which the memory can be disrupted or modified, necessitating a process of restabilization in order to persist. Such findings have sparked a wave of interest into whether this phenomenon, known as reconsolidation, occurs in humans. Translating research from animal models to human experiments and even to clinical interventions is an exciting prospect, but amid this excitement, relatively little work has critically evaluated and synthesized existing research regarding human memory reconsolidation. In this review, we formalize a framework for evaluating and designing studies aiming to demonstrate human memory reconsolidation. We use this framework to shed light on reconsolidation-based research in human procedural memory, aversive and appetitive memory, and declarative memory, covering a diverse selection of the most prominent examples of this research, including studies of memory updating, retrieval-extinction procedures, and pharmacological interventions such as propranolol. Across different types of memory and procedure, there is a wealth of observations consistent with reconsolidation. Moreover, some experimental findings are already being translated into clinically relevant interventions. However, there are a number of inconsistent findings, and the presence of alternative explanations means that we cannot conclusively infer the presence of reconsolidation at the neurobiological level from current evidence. Reconsolidation remains a viable but hotly contested explanation for some observed changes in memory expression in both humans and animals. Developing effective and efficient new reconsolidation-based treatments can be a goal that unites researchers and guides future experiments.

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