Pill to erase frightening memories causes bad feelings in medical community
Dutch scientists have developed a drug to erase painful memories.
Experiments on animals had already shown that the drugs – beta-adrenergic receptor blockers – can interfere with how the brain makes and remakes memories of frightening events.
His team created fearful memories in volunteers by showing them pictures of spiders while giving them gentle electric shocks, creating a strong negative association between spiders and discomfort.
The following day the volunteers were split into two groups. One was given the beta blocker and the other a placebo before both groups were shown the spider pictures again.
The group given the beta blocker had a much weaker fear response than those given the sugar pill, the researchers report in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
A day later – once the drug was out of their systems – their fear response was tested again. And again, those given the beta blocker showed fewer signs of spider phobia, suggesting the memory had been completely erased.
Beta blockers are thought to work because each time someone recalls a powerful emotional memory the memory is ‘remade’ by the brain.
The drug interferes with this re-creation of the stressful memory – and prevents the brain renewing it.
In theory, it could eradicate memories of traumatic events that happened years ago. It might also help patients overcome phobias, obsessions, eating disorders and even sexual hang-ups.
The new treatment may not be available for several years but could help sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder and those whose lives are plagued by insistent and damaging recurring memories and flashbacks.
But British medical experts say that the breakthrough raises disturbing ethical questions about what makes us human.
Dr Daniel Sokol, a lecturer in medical ethics at St George’s, University of London, told the Mail: ‘Removing bad memories is not like removing a wart or a mole. It will change our personal identity since who we are is linked to our memories.
‘It may perhaps be beneficial in some cases, but before eradicating memories, we must reflect on the knock-on effects that this will have on individuals, society and our sense of humanity.’
Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental-health charity Mind, was also concerned about the ‘fundamentally pharmacological’ approach to problems such as phobias and anxiety.
He told Channel 4 News that the unintended consequences ‘could include the eradication of positive memories’.