"What else gets eliminated accidentally?"

Method to erase traumatic memories may be on the horizon


Soldiers haunted by scenes of war and victims scarred by violence may wish they could wipe the memories from their minds. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University say that may someday be possible.

A commercial drug remains far off — and its use would be subject to many ethical and practical questions. But scientists have laid a foundation with their discovery that proteins can be removed from the brain's fear center to erase memories forever.

"When a traumatic event occurs, it creates a fearful memory that can last a lifetime and have a debilitating effect on a person's life," says Richard L. Huganir, professor and chair of neuroscience in the Hopkins School of Medicine. He said his finding on the molecular process "raises the possibility of manipulating those mechanisms with drugs to enhance behavioral therapy for such conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder." ..

For now, there aren't yet drugs to erase memories. But there are medications also targeting the amygdala and used with behavior therapy that can lessen the emotional response to painful memories in those with PTSD, such as propranolol, a beta blocker commonly used to treat hypertension.

Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University in Atlanta, says permanently erasing memories in humans, if it can be done, wouldn't be a lot different ethically than such behavior modification. Both are memory manipulation. But he said erasing memories is fraught with many more potential pitfalls.

He also said that PTSD sufferers, such as service members in Iraq and Afghanistan, frequently experience more than one traumatic event, and trying to eliminate all the memories could significantly alter a person's personality and history. So could forgetting a whole person after a painful loss or breakup, as depicted in the 2004 movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

Wolpe said it can be called dementia when someone forgets that much of their past.

"I don't know what it means to erase that much of a person's life," he said. "You'd leave a giant hole in a person's history. I tend to doubt you'd even be able to."

Further, he said, the safeguards necessary to protect the process from abuse would be difficult. Inmates or soldiers in danger of capture could be subjected to it, for example. Many questions should be decided before testing is pursued in humans, because its use may become "too tempting," he said.

Wolpe could see only limited uses for erasing a memory for now, such as for those suffering after a rape or single terrifying event.

"Certainly, there may be appropriate applications," he said. "But human identity is tied into memory. It creates our distinctive personalities. It's a troublesome idea to begin to be able to manipulate that, even if for the best of motives."

Comment: Shades of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

1 comment:

  1. I can see people doing this to "accidentally forget" the loans they foolishly contracted, and then turning around and notifying the creditors "I don't remember doing this, please remove from my credit record."

    OK, so that would be massive fraud, but.....I can see it happening.


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