In the Loop

A pill to make bad memories go bye bye?

Posted at 1:35 PM on July 9, 2007 by Sanden Totten (5 Comments)

So you remember how in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey's character had a team of technicians remove painful memories from his mind? Well, like flying machines and wireless communicators, memory erasers are making the jump from science fiction to the real world.

The drug propranolol, usually used for treating hypertension, has a curious effect on memories. As the Telegraph reports, if a person takes the drug while recalling the details of an emotional memory it will dampen the impact of the memory. The next time they try to recall that memory it will be less intense, less painful or whatever.

As Professor Karim Nader, one of the scientists behind a recent study of the drug puts it:

"We gave patients a drug that turns down the emotional part of the memory. It left the conscious part of the memory intact, so they could still remember all the details but without being overwhelmed by the memory."

Some suggest that you could take it even further by injecting the drug at the right time when a person is remembering a stressful event and screw up their ability to re-store that memory. You'd basically scramble their recollection and erase the memory all together.

The Wired Science blog raises some good concerns
: What if you accidentally think of the wrong memory, perhaps a really good one? Will that suddenly disappear too? Will this be used to treat serious post-traumatic stress or will it become a lifestyle drug to erase awkward conversations and embarrassing blunders?

Personally, I'm excited by the possibilities. I think it could do wonders for victims of serious crimes, returning troops, people involved in major accidents and others suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. But I'm also skeptical. My outlandish conspiracy theory fears remind me of another movie, not quite as critically successful as Eternal Sunshine, but none the less relevant: the sci-fi thriller Paycheck starring Ben Affleck.

But then again, my general attitude towards new technological possibilities is not if we will use them, but when.

What about you? Would you take the pill?

Comments (5)

I have some memories I'd much rather forget. If the pill only decreases the intensity of the emotions, I'm not for it. I accomplished the same thing with professional help using emdr which has been shown to be effective for some people with ptsd.

Now if it could eradicate a memory completely... tempting.

Btw, Eternal Sunshine and the Spotless Mind is one of my all time favorite movies.

Posted by wren | July 9, 2007 9:57 PM

I say yes if they can use it in a safe controlled manner so that only the desired memories are affected. I think the way it works is perfect. Having the memory without the emotional baggage gives you the opportunity to garner "wisdom" through experience without carrying or having to deal a period of emotional trauma. But this brings up another concern. If this really works will it lead to a new kind of junkie who seeks out experiences that are usually avoided because of the emotional trauma, or fear, or whatever negative consequences used to stop us or make us consider the options? Just off the top of my head like:leaving your family or gambling your house away.

Posted by AugieM | July 11, 2007 11:06 AM

Good question Augie. It leads to the possibility for a whole new kind of drug abuse . . . experience junkies.

You bring up a good point about people being able to use the pills to get wisdom without the pain, but maybe people would just start being dumber in their actions. They won't fear the emotional pain as much in the long term. It's that continual regret that sometimes makes you decide to change your behavior over time. But then again, that same regret can cease to be useful after a while and only drag you down. It's a tough call, but I think having the option is ultimately a good thing in this case.

Posted by Sanden Totten | July 11, 2007 11:36 AM

Propranolol's effect is more to dampen the physiological responses to the memory, as I understand it. It doesn't really impact the memory itself.

As for taking the drug -- I have been taking this one for over 30 years to prevent migraines. It doesn't impact my memory, which has been tested, by the way.

I still remember the stupid thing I said to my boss last month -- but when I remember it, I would probably have a higher heart rate and turn even more red with embarrassment if I weren't taking propranolol.

If this drug were as impactful as the headlines indicate, there would have been many thousands of people with hypertension, cardiac problems or migraines running around our communities with some major memory problems during the past 40 or more years. Instead, it took this many years to find this subtle effect.

I think the headlines don't accurately portray the effects of this drug -- something that is a common problem in medical reporting.

Posted by "Taking it" | July 12, 2007 2:19 PM

That's a good point. The sensational idea is often touted over the somewhat less extreme reality.

As far as wiping away a single memory, it seems that orally ingesting propranolol doesn't do that. But injections apparently can. Here is what the Telegraph wrote on the topic:

"Researchers have found they can use drugs to wipe away single, specific memories while leaving other memories intact. By injecting an amnesia drug at the right time, when a subject was recalling a particular thought, neuro-scientists discovered they could disrupt the way the memory is stored and even make it disappear."

It's not clear in the article what the "amnesia drug" is. It could be an injection of propranolol, they hadn't named the drug yet in the article so they could be calling it "amnesia drug" as short hand. Or they could be talking about another drug altogether, though since they never mention any other drugs I'm guessing they meant propranolol.

Either way, to be clear, they say that the drug mostly seems to dampen the impact of a certain memory. The way I've heard it described in other articles is that by taking this drug in conjunction with therapy you could reduce the stress associated with a memory. Is it a memory erase button? Doesn't seem so, but still, even canceling out the bad feelings of a powerful memory can make a huge difference in helping people get on with their lives.

I'm curious to know though, have you noticed any of these effects on you? Do you think that regular takers of the drug experience these effects or do you think one would need to be doing the therapy and memory targeting part of it too? Does this news make you feel differently about taking the drug?

Posted by Sanden Totten | July 12, 2007 9:12 PM

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