Drugs can erase bad memories to give you a spotless mind
BAD memories could be erased using a drug commonly prescribed for high blood pressure, new research has shown.
The discovery could lead to new ways of treating the emotional after-effects of traumatic experiences such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters.
But experts and ethicists questioned whether it was right to meddle with a person's mind and whether some people should even be prohibited from getting such treatment.
Previous research on animals has shown fear memories are capable of being altered at the time they are recalled. At this stage, they are "reconsolidated" in the brain. Studies also showed beta-blockers – drugs normally used to treat high blood pressure – may interfere with that reconsolidation process.
In the new study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, a team of Dutch researchers created a fearful memory in 60 participants by associating pictures of spiders with a mild electric shock.
When the beta-blocker drug propranolol was provided before again showing the photos of spiders, there was a marked reduction in how startled the individuals were. The effect appeared to be permanent.
Professor Merel Kindt, from the University of Amsterdam, the leader of the study team, wrote: "Millions of people suffer from emotional disorders and the relapse of fear, even after successful treatment.
"Our findings may have important implications for the understanding and treatment of persistent and self-perpetuating memories in individuals suffering from emotional disorders."
Changing memories has been a theme in film and literature, such as the 2004 film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In it, a man who cannot move on from a collapsed relationship takes up treatment to remove all memories of his ex.
But ethics experts warned the use of such treatments should be carefully considered. Hugh McLachlan, professor of applied philosophy at Glasgow Caledonian University, warned society should be cautious.
He said: "If someone raped another person, you might make a distinction between a victim blocking the memories versus the perpetrator.
"A murderer might suffer painful memories of what he did – and he bloody well should. Our memories constitute who we are and to block at least part of them would be to block, essentially, parts of our personalities."
Dr Daniel Sokol, a lecturer in medical ethics at St George's, University of London, added: "Removing bad memories is not like removing a wart. It will change our personal identity since who we are is linked to our memories. We must reflect on the knock-on effects that this will have on individuals, society and our sense of humanity."
John Harris, professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, said:
"An interesting complexity is the possibility that victims, say of violence, might wish to erase the painful memory – but with it their ability to give evidence."
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