60 Minutes, a couple weeks ago, did a story called The Memory Pill. It really should have been called what the online version calls it, A Pill To Forget? Can A Medication Suppress Traumatic Memories?
If there were something you could take after experiencing a painful or traumatic event that would permanently weaken your memory of what had just happened, would you take it? As correspondent Lesley Stahl reports, it’s an idea that may not be so far off, and that has some critics alarmed, and some trauma victims filled with hope.
When some traumatic event, such as a man jumping in front of a conductor’s train to commit suicide, or a girl being raped by a doctor at the age of 12, doctors who have studied and treated patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, have enrolled some patients in experimental studies of a drug called propranolol, a medication commonly used for high blood pressure … and unofficially, for stage fright.”
The story begins with some surprising discoveries about memory. It turns out our memories are sort of like Jello – they take time to solidify in our brains. And while they’re setting, it’s possible to make them stronger or weaker. It all depends on the stress hormone adrenaline… that’s why we remember important and emotional events in our lives more than regular day-to-day experiences.
“Propranolol sits on that nerve cell and blocks it, so that, think of this as being a key, and this is a lock, the hole in the lock is blocked because of propranolol sitting there. So adrenaline can be present, but it can’t do its job,” Professor James McGaugh explains.
“But then [in response to funding for further studies, after the initial successes]the President’s Council on Bioethics condemned the study in a report that said our memories make us who we are and that ‘re-writing’ memories pharmacologically… risks “undermining our true identity.”
David Magnus, director of Stanford University’s Center for Biomedical Ethics, says he worries that it won’t be just trauma victims trying to dull painful memories.
“From the point of view of a pharmaceutical industry, they’re going to have every interest in having as many people as possible diagnosed with this condition and have it used as broadly as possible. That’s the reality of how drugs get introduced and utilized,” Magnus argues.
He’s concerned it will be used for trivial reasons. “If I embarrass myself at a party Friday night and instead of feeling bad about it I could take a pill then I [won’t] have to avoid making a fool of myself at parties,” Magnus says.
“So you think that that embarrassment and all of that is teaching us?” Stahl asks.
“Absolutely,” Magnus says. “Our breakups, our relationships, as painful as they are, we learn from some of those painful experiences. They make us better people.”
But while the ethicists debate the issue, the science is moving forward. Researchers have shown in rat studies that propranolol can also blunt old memories.
And now the U.S. military has taken note: Pitman recently heard from the Army that he will be receiving funding starting next summer to try the same propranolol experiment to treat American soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
So, the questions:
1. Under what circumstances, if any, should a memory-blocking pill be taken?
2. Is the peace that comes with the end of a bad memory worth the life lessons that pain brings?
3. Would you ever take such a pill?
For me, I would hope such a day never came, and I feel that I’ve learned – well, mostly learned – from the bad things that have happened in my life, but I wouldn’t categorically suggest that I would NEVER take such a pill.