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Dangerous Pill To Erase “Bad” Memories

By James Donahue

A Dutch research team has invented a beta blocker, a pill that appears to change the brain chemistry of both humans and animals and remakes memories of unpleasant and frightening events.

Dr. Merel Kindt of Amsterdam University said experiments on animals and human volunteers have shown that the drugs, technically called beta-adrenergic receptor blockers, can interfere with how the brain deals with memories of unpleasant events.

The drug causes the brain to remake powerful emotional memories at the moment they are recalled.

The drug has been developed as a possible treatment for war veterans and disaster survivors suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder whose lives are plagued by recurrent memories and dreams. They suffer as their minds replay the memories of what happened to them.

At first thought such a pill sounds like a good idea. But there is usually always a dark side to every new miracle drug, especially one that tinkers with the chemistry in our brains.

Some world scientists are already raising disturbing ethical questions concerning the long-range effect such a drug might have on the psychology of the patient. What is disconcerting about any drug that manipulates brain function and memory is its potential effect on the personality of the individual.

As a student of sociology I am sensitive to the way all of our life experiences shape us into being who we are and the way we behave in society. There is an old adage that few can dispute. It is that we all learn from our mistakes. While the mistakes in life can become scars in our memory, they also serve as learning experiences. We all have had them. The mistakes of our past have made us the individuals we all are today. Do we dare experiment with a chemical that erases the memories of our past?

There is no doubt that survivors of automobile crashes, shipwrecks and fierce battles in war often suffer from psychological scarring that makes a strong imprint on their personalities. Psychologists have identified post traumatic stress disorder as a symptom caused when a person experiences an event that shatters his or her sense of safety and trust. The symptoms are emotional and fearful reactions to anything that reminds them of the event. They often suffer from bad dreams and a complete change in personality and behavior.

For most people, the symptoms of post traumatic stress fade away over time. But in some cases the disorder intensifies and they must seek treatment. Would a pill that helps them forget be a solution?

The threat to anyone willingly accepting a drug to erase brain memory might be comparable to receiving a lobotomy to control a mental disorder.

The lobotomy, which involved severing the nerves connecting the frontal portion of the brain, usually erased symptoms of anxiety and abnormal mental behavior, but it left the patient so mentally impaired institutionalization was often required.

The beta-adrenergic receptor blocker works in a much more subtle way. The researchers say that when using this drug, each time the patient recalls a powerful emotional memory, the memory is “remade” by the brain. In other words, its implant is erased or altered.

While it might erase the vision of blood and mayhem experienced during a time of disaster or war, the drug could also erase all of the other important “bad” memories of the past that make us who we are.