Eternal Sunshine of Propranolol

Would you want a drug that would wipe out your trauma memories?

Posted Mar 05, 2012

Would you want a drug that would wipe out your trauma memories?

It's like in the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in which Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey play a couple whose memories are continually erased.

This might seem like science fiction but an article in last week's Sunday Times (February 26th) by Amy Turner reported that human trials are being conducted with a drug called propranolol.

It is thought that the drug acts to stop consolidation of memory in the brain. Turner goes on to describe some of the research that is being conducted and how it may be possible to disrupt the process of memory consolidation in a way that blocks the powerful emotions while allowing the factual elements of the event to be retained.

Propranolol is now being discussed as a treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is defined by the presence of intrusive recollections of a traumatic event. Such recollections can be deeply distressing.

Not surprisingly any offer to relieve people of their distress may be welcomed by sufferers. But a drug that wipes out memories or blocks trauma-related emotions raises ethical questions about what circumstances such a drug could be administered. Consider the following scenarios.

What about perpetrators of sex crimes haunted by memories of their actions?

What if the perpetrator was diagnosed with PTSD?

A grieving mother suffering from PTSD following the loss of her son in a road traffic accident?

A returning combat veteran suffering from PTSD after being involved in friendly fire in which he accidently shot one of his colleagues?

Would it make a difference if it was the enemy that was shot?

Should such a drug ever be used deliberately to make it easier for soldiers to carry out actions that might otherwise lead to PTSD?

But another arises when we consider the research finding — reported in my previous blog — that posttraumatic stress may be the catalyst for posttraumatic growth (PTG). Would blocking memories of trauma interfere with the development of PTG?

Is it better to live with the pain of what has befallen us knowing that it may be the journey to a richer life or is it preferable to remove suffering at the cost of whatever growth may have arisen?

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