Forget Something? We Wish We Could
'Therapeutic forgetting' helps trauma victims endure their memories.
The Birth of Trauma continued...
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."
Acting Fast to Forget
The first to treat PTSD patients with propranolol was Roger K.
Pitman, MD, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard
Medical School. He'd just as soon forget the term "therapeutic
"We think of PTSD as an exaggeration of the emotional
response to trauma," Pitman tells WebMD. "Something so significant, so
upsetting, so provocative has happened that there has been a rush of stress
hormones, the hormones that act to burn a memory into the brain, to the point
that the memory becomes maladaptive. Our theory is that the adrenaline rush is
burning the memory too deeply."
Timing is critical. Once PTSD has developed, it's too late to
change stored memory, says Pitman. "It's important to intervene soon enough
to affect memory consolidation."
In his study, Pitman gave propranolol to emergency room
patients within six hours of a traumatic event. He found that six months later
they had significantly fewer signs of PTSD.
"It's not that they couldn't remember the accident,"
McGaugh explains. "They couldn't remember the trauma of the
accident. They didn't have as many symptoms of PTSD. It's a very important
Making Sense of Trauma
Propranolol was used to treat PTSD, with fairly good success,
in a small study treating sexually abused children. It's also
prescribed for specific phobias like public speaking, says Jon Shaw, MD, a PTSD
expert and director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of
Miami School of Medicine.