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A pill to minimize traumatic memories

Scientists are working on a medication to suppress the hormones that go wild after a traumatic experience. Though Slashdot spun this theoretical pill as a way to immediately forget painful memories like Hurricane Katrina, the real purpose of this work is to eliminate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (There is a distinction there; one of the scientists, Pitman, says, “The important thing to know about this drug is it doesn’t put a hole in their memory. It doesn’t create amnesia.”)

Memories, painful or sweet, don’t form instantly after an event but congeal over time. Like slowly hardening cement, there is a window of opportunity when they are shapable.

During stress, the body pours out adrenaline and other “fight or flight” hormones that help write memories into the “hard drive” of the brain, McGaugh and Cahill showed.

Propranolol can blunt this. It is in a class of drugs called beta blockers and is the one most able to cross the blood-brain barrier and get to where stress hormones are wreaking havoc. It already is widely used to treat high blood pressure and is being tested for stage fright.

The only thing I’m concerned about is what might happen when the formula is perfected. After all, we are an extraordinarily over-medicated country. I could easily see us going nuts with this, trying to “erase” even the smallest things that happen to us. I’m also concerned about how you would know when to give someone the pill.

For example, I don’t think I needed to take this medicine after the fire. It was very traumatic to lose everything, but I have not developed PTSD. I am still upset about it, and there are definitely things I need to work through, but I am still able to function, and I don’t have horrible flashbacks or anything of that nature.

I’m interested to know what the purpose of the elevated hormone levels might be. Is this an evolved trait meant to help us avoid danger? Or is this something that just happened to come along for the ride in our genes? Regardless, would it be detrimental to suppress these hormones when it’s unnecessary?