Medicine to erase memories; Sci-fi plot or real life?

I wanted to dedicate my blog post today to something I’ve been learning about in my Cognitive Psychology class. We are currently learning about memory and how malleable it is, but something was brought up that caught my attention.

Beta Blockers, traditionally prescribed to treat high blood pressure and anxiety, have been the subject of a lot of research in treating patients with PTSD or other disorders brought on by traumatic events.

People with PTSD usually have “triggers,” or things that remind them of the experience. When these triggers happen, they often go into a state of panic. Researchers are trying to find ways to get rid of or make memories of the event less vivid in order to reduce these stress responses.

When traumatic memories are bought up, or reconsolidated, in the mind, propranolol (a beta blocker) is administered. This makes it so the chemicals associated with strengthening memory are greatly lessened, and in turn, making the memory less memorable.

In a 2007 study by Brunet et al, compared to a placebo, patients who were administered propranolol experienced less PTSD responses(high heart rate, sweaty palms, etc.) after a two week period when the mental imagery of their traumatic experiences were brought up.

One thing people are concerned about is the possibility of the drug being “used for evil,” like some of the “mind eraser” devices or techniques used by evil villains in scifi stories. But most ethicists feel the research proves it only makes memories less memorable, and doesn’t completely erase them. The use of beta blockers would most likely be used along with therapy to speed up the recovery process.


Propranolol, like the neuralizer in the Men In Black series, is being researched to help people forget traumatic events. (Photo by Sony Pictures)

Overall, I think this type of research is great for the field of Psychology. People with PTSD, or even people with phobias, have another possible resource for treating their mental illness.


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