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Forget Something? We Wish We Could

'Therapeutic forgetting' helps trauma victims endure their memories.
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WebMD Feature

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?

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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 memory."

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 PTSD.

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 McGaugh.

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," he says.

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."

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