Can't Remember What I Forgot

The latest research on memory loss and the aging brain

Rape, robbery, memory

The police surmised he had been slipped scopolamine...

A few weeks before boarding a ship in Argentina to cross the notorious Drake Passage on the way to Antarctica, I asked my doctor for a couple of scopolamine patches in case the going got rough.  Scopolamine is the drug of choice for those of us who are prone to seasickness; worn behind the ear, it's more effective than over-the-counter anti-nausea drugs, and once it's on, you pretty much forget about it.  The problem is that you pretty much forget about everything else, too.  I had no idea.  I put on the patch and went about my business.  The boat crossed a calm Drake, we made it to the Antarctic Peninsula in record time, and before long I was standing on Penguin Island looking at...penguins.  Good thing I was taking notes and taking pictures, because the next day, while I recalled stepping off on to the island, and the multitude of wildlife there, it was a fuzzy memory at best, like a picture that's almost in focus.  What I didn't know--what, in fact, pretty much none of the other passengers didn't know--was that scopolamine interferes with memory.  This is because it's an anticholinergic agent, and blocks the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.  By way of contrast, the Alzheimer's drug Aricept is designed to increase acetylcholine, which is in short supply in Alzheimer's patients.  Boosting acetylcholine is thought to boost memory.

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The patch I wore released scopolamine into my body in a very low, continuous dose.  Aside from my fuzzy memory, it was otherwise benign.  But scopolamine in higher doses is being used, now, to commit crimes--rape, kidnapping, and robbery most prominently--usually by slipping it into food or drink.  When I was in Italy this summer, an elderly man, traveling with his wife, was killed after "waking up," at a train station, finding that he and his wife had been robbed, and falling onto the train tracks into the path of an oncoming train. His wife remembered accepting a cappuccino from a stranger who had befriended them, and that's about all.  The police surmised that they had been slipped scopolamine or something like it.

The drug has also been implicated in the large number of cruise ship rapes.  Criminals like it precisely because it causes short-term memory loss:  victims can't identify them or testify against them.  Blocking memory is like wiping away fingerprints. But don't be fooled--it's not that victim has no knowledge of being victimized, it's that the victim has no idea how such a thing could have happened.  Scopolamine is also known as "Devil's Breath."  That pretty much says it all.

 

Sue Halpern is scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College and author, most recently, of Can't Remember What I Forgot: The Good News From The Front Lines of Memory Research.

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