Sunday, February 15, 2009

Drugs and memories

In the news:

A widely available blood pressure pill could one day help people erase bad memories, perhaps treating some anxiety disorders and phobias, according to a Dutch study published on Sunday. . . .

The findings published in the journal Nature Neuroscience are important because the drug may offer another way to help people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems related to bad memories.
Egyptian researchers beat them to it. In Odyssey 4, as Menelaus, Telemachus, and Peisistratus grieve the sorrows of the Trojan War, Helen uses an Egyptian drug to make the men forget their troubles:
She threw a drug into the wine bowl
They were drinking from, a drug
That stilled all pain, quieted all anger
And brought forgetfulness of every ill.
.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     
Helen had gotten this potent, cunning drug
From Polydamna, the wife of Thon,
A woman in Egypt, where the land
Proliferates with all sorts of drugs,
Many beneficial, many poisonous.
Men there know more about medicines
Than any other people on earth,
For they are of the race of Paeeon, the Healer.
This moment in the Odyssey is funny, sinister, and unforgettable. Helen must have suspected that it would be helpful to have such a drug handy for thought-control in a sorrow-filled post-war home. In her foresight, she resembles wily Odysseus, who carries strong wine when off to explore the cave of Cyclops Polyphemus. (Odysseus of course gets Polyphemus drunk before blinding him).

The Dutch study is here:

Merel Kindt, Marieke Soeter, and Bram Vervliet, Beyond extinction: erasing human fear responses and preventing the return of fear (Nature Neuroscience)

[Odyssey translation by Stanley Lombardo (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000).]

comments: 4

T. said...

This is fascinating, especially since I know of some of the research that came out before the Dutch paper (see http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/2004/03.18/01-ptsd.html if interested) and some of the ethics questions that have arisen since (see here: http://www.bioethics.net/journal/j_articles.php?aid=1338). As someone who spends a lot of her time trying to keep the brain/mind comfortable, I definitely have a strong interest in this very subject

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the links, T. I've added a link to the Dutch study to the post (couldn't find it earlier today).

I have a layperson's interest in these matters via Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America. The prospect of eliminating traumatic memories does indeed take us into strange ethical territory. If such erasure becomes possible, I wonder whether it would also become necessary to erase the memory of having remembered trauma, along with the memory of being treated. Otherwise, one would remember going to the doctor for — what? I don't mean to be lighthearted at all in asking such questions. These are possibilities of consciousness that boggle my consciousness.

T said...

I personally don't believe propranolol has the power to obliterate memory completely - I think it's more physiologic than psychotropic - but rather to prevent the tendency to relive something repeatedly with all the same terror and emotionaly agony of the initial event, a tendency which can intensify the trauma after the fact and embed the memory in a kind of psychological scar tissue that the mind keeps wanting to pick at and pick at, mercilessly, as post-traumatic stress evolves. My understanding is that the beta-blocker functions similarly to the way it does prior to performance: you still feel the fear, and remember why, but it's easier to tolerate because your heart's not racing a mile a minute and your blood pressure doesn't go sky high.

I could be wrong about these impressions; this isn't a professional opinion so much as a personal impression/understanding.

Michael Leddy said...

The qualification in the Reuters article — "could one day help" — seems to have been lost elsewhere. Headlines from Google News: "Research shows pills can erase memories," "Let's protect our memories from doctors." Sheesh.