Is New Drug the Cure for Bad Memories, or Media Hype?

February 18, 2009 09:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
A study has found that a beta-blocker may lessen the negative emotions associated with bad memories. But has the media exaggerated the research findings?

Treating the Fear Associated With Traumatic Memories

The beta-blocker propranolol (Inderal), which is usually taken to treat heart conditions, has been found to eliminate the fear and anxiety associated with bad memories, according to a report from Dutch scientists in the Feb. 15 issue of Nature Neuroscience.

The researchers say that the drug has the ability to wipe out, in the short-term, the fear response associated with painful memories created in the lab. They say that their findings could in the future alleviate the suffering of those who suffer from anxiety disorders as a result of trauma.

“This study is a solid step forward in our understanding of how to reduce fear,” Mark Bouton, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, said to HealthDay News. “The big question is whether this treatment will reduce all forms of relapse, including the return of fear that can occur with the passage of time.”

Study participants were first shown photos of a spider, accompanied by an electric shock, in order to condition them to fear the image. Later, some were given propranolol and others were given a placebo before being shown the image again. Those who were given the beta-blocker had their fear response “reduced or even eliminated” when they were shown the spider again after 24 hours.

The research builds on a study published in the May 2008 Journal of Psychiatric Research that found that beta-blockers might help patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

 “Kindt’s work confirms our clinical results and goes further by showing beta-blockers also have this effect” on people who had no previous history of mental health issues, said Alain Brunet, psychiatrist at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute at McGill University in Montreal and a co-author of the PTSD study, to Science News.

Opinion & Analysis: Did the media go overboard?

Headlines such as that of the Daily Mail’s article, “Pill to erase bad memories,” widely suggested that scientists can now wipe out selected memories in a scenario similar to a science fiction novel, or the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” But some bloggers say that the findings’ significance has been exaggerated.

Ed Yong of the blog Not Exactly Rocket Science points out that the subjects in the study still remembered the spider images and expected to experience the shock. They simply no longer experienced the fear response. “The drug hadn’t so much erased their memories, as dulled their emotional sting. It’s more like removing all the formatting from a Word document than deleting the entire file,” he said.

Blogger Danny McCaslin at The Phrenologist’s Notebook calls the media’s coverage of the study a “mangling” of the original research. “The Internet is wonderful for science news, but it is hard to differentiate the real story from the media’s version,” McCaslin wrote. “It took three articles before I found the source of this story and was able to read the evidence for myself. If you find something that looks too good to be true, try to do a little digging.”

Related Topics: Recent research on memory

Recent advances in memory research that study how memories can be changed or altered are creating all sorts of possibilities, from breaking drug addiction to lessening the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder. But some wonder what the cost of manipulating memories and memory formation could be.

Last year, some scientists and doctors were claiming that drugs used for treating attention-deficit disorder and hyperactivity could help the general public improve brain performance. A group of neuroscientists, psychiatrists and ethicists were encouraging the public to use brain-boosting drugs, and arguing that medications like Ritalin and Adderall are comparable to other mind-enhancing strategies, such as sleep and coffee.

Reference: Beta-blocker study


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines