Erasing Painful Memories

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • The idea of finding a drug or treatment that can somehow erase or diminish the emotional component of memory while not damaging the complete structure of memory, may be within our grasp. Over the past few years there has been increasing interest in the drug propranolol, a beta-blocker normally used for high blood pressure and sometimes anxiety relief. To date, the treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) tend to involve medication and some form of psychotherapy. Various factors, such as previous exposure to trauma, the extent and nature of the trauma and the strength of reaction to trauma, will influence both the treatment and its outcomes.

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    Nothing improves memory more than trying to forget. It's an old saying with more than a grain of truth. Yet the more often we trigger a memory the greater the chance some minor change takes place. Memory feeds imagination and is fairly easily distorted. Remember going back to your old school? How the rooms seem so different now? Minor distortions in memory usually do us no harm but they often reveal differences in the ways a shared event was perceived. You look back fondly on an event, for example, only to find the person who was with you pointing out you didn't see it that way at the time. That tells us memory is also selective and can even be prone to change depending on our mood at the time of recall.


    Our memories are laid down in different places within the brain. The sights, sounds, times and place of memories are all stored in different regions. However, each memory has an emotional element and the area of brain that stores this emotional memory is called the amygdala. Our worst memories tend to be those with a strong emotional component. These are the times when we said or did something that makes us cringe with embarrassment. They may be times when we ourselves were snubbed or suffered some kind of rejection. These are painful experiences but, as I've said before, emotional pain matters when in comes to developing coping strategies.


    There are however some memories that are so traumatic, so destructive and painful that it's hard to see any merit in them. People suffering with PTSD are haunted by such memories, to the point where their daily lives are affected. We tend to think of soldiers or perhaps victims of some terrible natural disaster as those likely to suffer from PTSD, but trauma may also extend from childhood and symptoms masked by physical complaints, depression, and/or anxiety, all of which can lead to difficulties in diagnosing PTSD.


    Professor Karim Nader, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal,  is one scientist to have reported significant clinical improvements in people suffering with PTSD who have taken propranolol. Nader suggests that the beta-blocker drug is effective because it disrupts the process of memory storage once the memory is activated. Normally, he says, the brain uses proteins to restore memory but propranolol seems to have the effect of disrupting and possibly even erasing the negative emotional components associated with traumatic memories. In the next experimental phase, scientists plan to target the amygdala area of the brain. They will ask PTSD sufferers to verbally recall their experiences in as much detail as they can. If successful, propranolol will disrupt the subsequent storage of recovered memories so they will fade or even perhaps be forgotten.


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    If propranolol drug therapy is eventually adopted it is likely to be administered within the context of an established psychotherapy, for example, cognitive behavioral therapy.


Published On: March 05, 2012