Monday, July 9, 2007

Sham: Should we allow drugs to tamper with our memories?

In a move reminiscent of the film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," one drug company is pursuing research for a new psycho-drug with the aim of lessening the impact of long-term bad memories.

Have a car wreck you'd like to forget? Or, a bad date that you just can't get out of your mind? Well, if that's the case, we've got just the dandy new drug to sell you . . .

A US and Canadian team used a drug called propranolol to target unwanted memories, while leaving others intact. They injected the drug, which is more often used to treat heart patients, while a volunteer was asked to recall a painful memory. (Propranolol is commonly marketed by Wyeth under the trade name Inderal.)

The Journal of Psychiatric Research study found that this seemed to disrupt the way the memory was then stored.

The researchers, from McGill University, in Montreal, and Harvard University in Boston, hope their work could lead to new treatments for patients with psychiatric disorders, such as post-traumatic stress. However, others have warned the research is still at a very early stage - and expressed concern that it could potentially be abused easily.

The researchers believe that memories are initially stored in the brain in a malleable, fluid state before becoming hard-wired into the circuitry. They believe propranolol disrupts the biochemical pathways that allow a memory to "harden" after it has been recalled.

The BBC (link in headline of this post) quotes one expert as saying "One does not know what effect such a drug could have in the long term . . . After all, fear reactions are there to protect people from danger in the future."

This sounds to me like one of the worst ideas I've ever seen for selling quantities of pharmaceutical chemicals.

Dave

1 comment:

Larry said...

Indiscriminate use of any drug with psychotropic properties is ill-advised.
In this case, propranolol (Indiral), a beta-blocker drug that has been used
for many years to control blood pressure, has found utility in preventing
high anxiety. For example, people with a fear of public speaking can take a
small dose of propranolol, and avoid the "caught in the headlights"
physiological activation that can literally cause people to freeze in panic
when in front of an audience.
This new research is an extension of this off-label use. It was known that
people who once needed propranolol to do public speaking later found that
they did not need the drug. Some sort of training had occurred. It was
thought that memories of "safe" performances were what was responsible for
the lessening of activation, but this recent work shows that the prevention
of the physiological "fight or flight" adrenaline surge was a necessary part
of the creation of the safe memory.

PTSD is an intrusion into the present of emotional memory via triggering,
i.e. some sort of cue revitalizes the physiological and emotional state of
some prior traumatic circumstance. It was found that propranolol, if taken
before a negative emotional experience, or immediately after one, blocked or
reduced the physiological activation component of the memory. Recall was not
affected. I reiterate, memory was not blocked. The physiological activation
was blocked or reduced. PTSD is self-reinforcing. Each experience of the
intrusive emotional activation adds to the memory trace, in a vicious circle
process. Intervention in that cycle could vastly reduce recovery time.

Yes, it could be argued that fear could be suppressed. Perhaps, that's just
what some people need, however. Reducing the trauma following e.g. rape or
disaster or war would be beneficial to a lot of people.

Larry