Drug could scrub horrible memories, researchers
July 27, 2005
and World Science staff
A commonly used class of drugs could extinguish the trauma associated with horrific memories, according to
a news article in this week’s edition of the research journal Nature.
The findings could help people with post-traumatic stress disorder—a psychological condition that results from traumas like war or terrorist attacks, researchers said
in the journal.
But some mental health experts also worry treatment could be abused, the article noted, perhaps by military commanders who want soldiers to become desensitized to terrible acts.
The drugs are known as
beta-blockers, and they are already widely used as treatments for high blood
pressure and heart problems.
According to the journal, U.S. psychiatrists claim beta-blockers can also interfere with the way the brain stores memories. Administer these drugs at the right time, suggest the psychiatrists, and sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder could snuff out the periods of panic that blight their lives.
The idea is timely, yet controversial. Data on previous terrorist attacks suggest that the recent bombings in London and Egypt will cause a spike in post-traumatic stress disorder rates. Current treatments, such as
counselling, have limited success, so alternatives are
welcome, the journal noted.
According to Nature, research in rats has shown that beta-blockers disrupt the process by which the brain puts a memory back into storage after it’s recalled. In so doing, they don’t erase the memory completely, but they can
extinguish the fear and panic associated with it.
The drugs act by blocking neurotransmitters, chemicals that transmit messages among brain cells.
To work, they would have to be administered at the time patients are feeling
symptoms of the stress disorder, such as rapid heart rate or troubled breathing.
A group of New York-based psychiatrists including Margaret Altemus of Cornell University has reproduced some of the rat results in humans, and plans to submit their findings for publication in a research journal,
Nature reported. In the meantime, they are starting work on a clinical trial of one beta blocker,
But other researchers told the journal that they have concerns about the research. Paul McHugh, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and a member of the U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics, was quoted as
saying: “If soldiers did something that ended up with children getting killed, do you want to give them beta-blockers so that they can do it again?”
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Front image courtesy U.S. National Institute on