Remorse. Heartbreak. Embarrassment. If we could erase memories
that haunt us, would we? Should we? Scientists who work with patients suffering
from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are developing a new
science that has been called "therapeutic forgetting."
But by erasing traumatic memories, are we changing the person?
Are we erasing capacity for empathy?
A diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is based on a report of the patient's history in the aftermath of a psychological trauma. This will include recent symptoms; a description of the event (at times, the event may have been forgotten, especially if it occurred during childhood); childhood, educational, and work experiences; and relationships with others. Other disorders that often accompany PTSD are depression, other anxiety disorders, and alcohol or drug abuse.
Last year, the President's Council on Bioethics expressed
concern that "memory numbing ... could dull the sting of one's own shameful
acts ... allow a criminal to numb the memory of his or her victims.
"Separating subjective experience of memory from the true
nature of the experience that is remembered cannot be underestimated," says
the Council's report. "Do those who suffer evil have a duty to remember and
bear witness, lest we forget the very horrors that haunt them?"
The research community is divided on this issue. "I think
there's an ethical concern," says Mark Barad, MD, professor of psychiatry
and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. "It's
hard to estimate what's important about a memory, how the memory interacts with
who we are, how it affects our ability to empathize.
"Philosophically, I'm on the side of extinguishing fear
rather than blocking memory," Barad tells WebMD. "Given my experience
with people with PTSD, we're talking about a very severe downside to blunting
After all, would Holocaust survivors wish to blunt their
memories? Would that be good for society? Or should people have the freedom to
decide if they want horrible memories softened?
The Birth of Trauma
James McGaugh is a pioneer in the neurobiology of learning and
memory. He directs the Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at
the University of California at Irvine.
For several decades, he has performed numerous animal and human
experiments to understand the processes involved in memory consolidation. He
believes strongly in the work being done to help people suffering from
An event becomes a strong memory, a traumatic memory, when
emotions are high, he explains. Those emotions trigger a release of stress
hormones like adrenaline, which act on a region of the brain called the
amygdala -- and the memory is stored or "consolidated," explains
Current studies have focused on a drug called propranolol,
which is commonly prescribed for heart disease because it helps
the heart relax, relieves high
blood pressure, and prevents heart attacks. "Hundreds of thousands,
millions of people take this drug now for heart disease," he tells WebMD.
"We're not talking about some exotic substance."
Studies have shown that "if we give a drug that blocks the
action of one stress hormone, adrenaline, the memory of trauma is blunted,"
The drug cannot make someone forget an event, McGaugh
says. "The drug does not remove the memory -- it just makes the
memory more normal. It prevents the excessively strong memory from developing,
the memory that keeps you awake at night. The drug does something that our
hormonal system does all the time -- regulating memory through the actions of
hormones. We're removing the excess hormones."