Retracting recollections: Drugs could erase bad memories


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The memory-erasing concept behind “Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind” might not be so unrealistic after all. Neuroscientists have made some revolutionary discoveries that could put memory-erasing drugs on the market in a few decades. And this has bioethicists — the people who study the moral values in biomedical sciences — apprehensive about the consequences such a drug could have on personality, society and humanity in general.

Until recently, neuroscientists believed that memories are unstable for a few hours after an event — meaning they could be modified or altered during this window — before being stored in the brain forever, with no way of eliminating them. But in the past couple of decades, some innovative research has indicated otherwise: When someone recalls a memory, it’s removed from storage and is once again unstable, at which point it can be modified or possibly even erased.


Propranolol, a drug used to treat hypertension, is undergoing extensive research for its newly discovered ability to help “detach” people from certain memories, according to an insightful article in the January/February issue of Scientific American Mind. Researcher Alain Brunet published a study in 2009 that studied 65 PTSD patients. One group took propranolol once a week for six weeks while the other group took a placebo, and all participants followed up with sessions in which they would read descriptions of their traumatic experiences.

Physiological symptoms in the propranolol patients were reduced by an incredible 50%; placebo patients’ symptoms only decreased by 7%. Scientific American Mind stated that halfway through his fifth session, Joel Coutu, a participant who had suffered from PTSD after being robbed at gunpoint, no longer had an attachment to the trauma story. It was like “reading a novel or watching a movie,” he said.


Protein kinase M-zeta (PKMzeta)
In 1990, neuroscientist Todd Sacktor of S.U.N.Y. Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn and his colleagues discovered an enzyme molecule called protein-kinase M-zeta, or PKMzeta, that plays a role in long-term memory, according to the Scientific American Mind article. The researchers trained a rat to avoid an area of a room where it received a shock. After a day, they injected a drug into the hippocampus — a part of the brain that deals with memory — that inhibited PKMzeta. Afterward, the rat was unable to remember what area to avoid, suggesting that the memory was erased from the rat’s brain.

The PKMzeta studies suggest the PKMzeta-inhibiting drug is more powerful than propranolol and wipes the brain of memories — as opposed to propranolol’s “detachment” effect. But like propranolol, the drug is in its very early stages of research, and it will be a long time until we see a memory-erasing drug being marketed.


Memory morality
As you can imagine, the idea of people having the ability to wipe certain events from their memory has generated some controversy. Many worry that it will have drastic implications on a person’s sense of identity, since our memories make up a large part of who we are. The President’s Council on Bioethics noted in an October 2003 statement: “New psychotropic drugs create the possibility of severing the link between feelings of happiness and our actions and experiences in the world.”

Others claim this is a stretch. Neil Levy, a researcher at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, stated, “The connection is not to every one of our memories, so altering or erasing particular memories isn’t going to threaten our sense of self.” But what about painful memories that stem from events we’ve learned from? Will we be able to learn from our own mistakes if we’re able to erase the uncomfortable ones from our memory?

Even worse: What if such a drug were put in the wrong hands? Hypothetically, a criminal could take such a drug to pass lie-detector tests, and witnesses who want to erase the memory of a traumatic crime wouldn’t be able to provide evidence against the perpetrator in court. Or the criminal could administer the drug to a witness in order to evade persecution.

On the other hand, memories resulting in PTSD inhibit the affected person from living a functional, happy life. A memory-erasing drug could give them their lives back. On a smaller scale, Scientific American Mind quoted neuroscientist Karim Nader providing this example: “Imagine a high jumper who fell during the Olympics. They may have a lot of anxiety associated with jumping, and it could severely affect their future performance. If we can make these drugs work, you could help them, too — or anyone with anxiety that is having a problem.”

If you could erase a memory, would you? Do you think memory-erasing drugs would be beneficial or dangerous?