Xenon gas is commonly used for anesthesia, neuroprotection, and diagnostic imaging in humans. A study done by McLean Hospital and published by PLOS ONE, however, found that the ways in which we use xenon gas isn't limited to these practices—the gas can also significantly impact the way we treat mental health. According to the study, the chemical gas has the potential to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other memory-related issues.

Looking at previous studies, researchers understood that when an emotional memory is recalled, the brain restores it as a new memory. This process, known as reconsolidation, leaves memories in a state in which they can become susceptible to modification. To experiment with ways in which this process can be interfered with and altered, the study introduced xenon gas to lab rats.

Using Fear-Conditioning on Rats

In the experiment, researchers used environmental cues to give brief shocks to rats. This practice is known as fear-conditioning and is used to create an animal model of PTSD. Once the rats were conditioned to fear specific environmental cues, scientists triggered those initial traumatic memories in order to measure their freezing response, a sign of fear. Some rats were immediately exposed to xenon gas once memories were reactivated.

Rats that were exposed to xenon gas displayed a dramatic and persistent reduction of fear responses for up to two weeks, notes Dr. Edward G. Meloni, Ph.D., assistant psychologist at McLean Hospital and assistant professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "It was as though the animals no longer remembered to be afraid of those cues," he added.

Why Xenon Gas is so Effective in Shaping Memory

The chemical properties of xenon are is what makes it so efficient in manipulating our brain processes. Dr. Meloni notes that although other drugs can block NMDA receptors, which are important for controlling memory function, in the same way xenon gas does, the chemical gas used in this study can get in and out of the brain quickly. Because of the way it is already used to treat humans, researchers add that utilizing xenon gas for PTSD seems very promising.


Date of original publication:
Updated on: April 13, 2017


Edward G. Meloni, Timothy E. Gillis, Jasmine Manoukian, Marc J. Kaufman.Xenon Impairs Reconsolidation of Fear Memories in a Rat Model of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (8): e106189 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0106189