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Intrusive memories of a traumatic event can be distressing and disruptive, and comprise a core clinical feature of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Intrusive memories involve mental imagery-based impressions that intrude into mind involuntarily, and are emotional. Here we consider how recent advances in cognitive science have fueled our understanding of the development and possible treatment of intrusive memories of trauma. We conducted a systematic literature search in PubMed, selecting articles published from 2008 to 2018 that used the terms "trauma" AND ("intrusive memories" OR "involuntary memories") in their abstract or title. First, we discuss studies that investigated internal (neural, hormonal, psychophysiological, and cognitive) processes that contribute to intrusive memory development. Second, we discuss studies that targeted these processes using behavioural/pharmacological interventions to reduce intrusive memories. Third, we consider possible clinical implications of this work and highlight some emerging research avenues for treatment and prevention, supplemented by new data to examine some unanswered questions. In conclusion, we raise the possibility that intrusive memories comprise an alternative, possibly more focused, target in translational research endeavours, rather than only targeting overall symptoms of disorders such as PTSD. If so, relatively simple approaches could help to address the need for easy-to-deliver, widely-scalable trauma interventions.

Original publication




Journal article


Clin Psychol Rev

Publication Date





67 - 82


Cognitive science, Intrusive memory, Mental imagery, Post-traumatic stress disorder, Psychological trauma, Treatment innovation, Cognitive Science, Humans, Memory, Episodic, Mental Recall, Psychological Trauma, Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic