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The Anti-Memory Pill

A Pill to Erase Memory?

December 2006

You may have seen the news a week or two ago about Propranolol. The critics have painted it as a pill that takes away memory. They suggest there are all sorts of problems and ethical dilemmas that come with its use. Is this true?

First of all, if you watched the news stories that covered the topic in more depth, you realize that Propranolol doesn't actually erase memory. So what does it do? When it is taken while remembering traumatic things, it prevents the rush of adrenaline that normally occurs in those suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disease - formerly known as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome). This reduces the strength of the emotional response.

It should be noted that PTSD, while associated with returning war veterans, occurs in many other contexts as well. A car accident, a tornado, or any number of events can cause a person to have recurring panic when something triggers memories of the event.

Taking Propranolol while recalling the traumatic events, and then repeating this process over and over, eventually retrains the brain so that traumatic events can be recalled without much emotion. In other words, Propranolol may be able to eliminate the severe emotional response to past events that many people have. This is the hope, in any case. More studies are being conducted.

There doesn't seem to be any loss of memory associated with using these pills. In an interview with one woman who used the drug, it was apparent that she remembered all the details of the rape she suffered as a child. She just no longer suffered from the crippling emotions that used to come with the recollection.

It was suggested to this woman that the pill may be altering who she is by altering her emotional response to traumatic events. What was her view on this? She said that she was finally able to be herself now that the severe effects of her trauma were gone. That's understandable, unless one wants to argue that regular and severe emotional pain is an important part of one's identity.

There may be some potential for abuse of this drug, as the critics suggested. For example, people could use it to overcome the feelings that come from extreme guilt or embarrassment, rather than using these feelings as a motivation for changing their behavior. Of course, there are risks of abuse with any new drugs, even those that do wonderful things. Many people already abuse various prescription drugs (not to mention alcohol and illegal drugs), using them to avoid making necessary changes.

On balance, it seems like those risks are worth it in this case. At this point, there don't seem to be any side effects, and Propranolol may be of great benefit to those who have suffer from PTSD. Our brains need emotional cues for guidance, but sometimes those go too far and become crippling. If there is nothing better, why not use a pill that can help the brain get back to functioning effectively?

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