Science Monday: Pills for “forgetting” trauma


on 11/26/06 60 Minutes presented a piece about the use of Propranolol, a beta blocker, in attempting to eliminate the physical symptoms of memories of trauma. Patients (in the treatment group) were administered the drug after writing out the details of their trauma. Later (long after the drugs wore off) they were read their stories back to them while measuring adrenaline levels and physiological symptoms associated with the flight/fight response.  Some seem to not have the triggered reactions of PTSD. Some studies of the drug have been carried out on rats. The rats given the medication while trying to “learn” something seem to have more trouble remembering what they were trying to learn. In humans, the theory is that it somehow may disconnect emotion from memory. If you want to read more on the topic follow this link. Here’s one quote from that page: Experiments indicate propranolol also blocks the effect of adrenaline upon areas of the brain involved in memory formation, including the amygdala. It seems to disconnect emotion from memory.

At this point, there isn’t much evidence that the drug will eliminate previously formed memories. Will it reduce flash-backs or just the intense emotions experienced during them. If it does, that would be good.   After the popular media dust settles and the alarmists stop their attacks (you can take this drug so as to forget something bad you did; People who take this will forget important details and then won’t be able to be good witnesses to the crimes committed against them), there will be some important questions: 1. How much does the drug create the effect and how much is it the retelling of the story from a relaxed, distant state? EMDR, a treatment for trauma created by Francine Shapiro, works not because of some finger waving but the repeated retelling of trauma the causes the teller to distance from the event and recall it more than relive it. 2. How much does intentional forgetting play a part here? Intentional forgetting does seem to reduce one’s recall of prior events. Just participating in the study may cause some to distance from their stories once the secrets of trauma are revealed to others in a safe environment. This is not true for everyone, but for some the act of being heard, seen, cared for while revealing their deepest secrets is very healing.

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Filed under counseling science, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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