If your doctor offered you a well-tested, often-prescribed drug to erase emotions associated with your worst memories, would you take it? According to a study just published in the online journal Nature Neuroscience, this Brave New Worldish sounding scenario may not be as unrealistic as it seems.
The study tested whether beta blockers, a common class of drugs often prescribed for heart conditions, would dampen the level of emotion felt when recalling a frightening memory. According to Science News, researchers paired an electric shock with an image of a spider to condition study participants to have a fearful memory of the image. Later, some participants were given the beta blocker propranolol, and others a placebo.
All participants were then shown the image of the spider again after 24 hours. Participants who had been given the beta blocker showed a significantly lower fear response than the placebo group, and in some cases the fear response was eliminated.
It’s important to note that the memory of the spider and the electric shock was still intact — it was the emotion felt with the memory that was reduced or eliminated.
From the Science News article:
The researchers think beta-blockers work by changing the way the frightening memories are stored. Each time a memory is recalled it changes a little, and the new version is recorded in the long-term memory stash via brain chemical fluctuations in a process called reconsolidation. The beta-blockers could interfere with the brain chemicals, blocking reconsolidation of the emotional component of the memory, but leaving the rest of the memory intact, the scientists suggest.
Here, however, is the catch: if beta blockers work the way this study suggests, by interfering with the reconsolidation of the emotional component of memory, then it’s not just bad memories that would be affected. Emotional responses that tag along with the happiest memories would also be dampened or eliminated.
Clearly a lot more research will be done before beta blockers would ever be prescribed for anxiety disorders or post traumatic stress. But, it may be that one day many people will be faced with the choice of numbing all of their emotional memories–the bad and good–or deciding to suffer the bad ones because the good ones are just too important to lessen.