May 22, 2024

Scientists probing “therapeutic forgetting”

Some things you'd rather forget

Could a tablet swallowed immediately after a terrible experience help you forget it? Scientists are working on drugs which might be able to prevent traumatic memories being stored if taken soon after a disturbing event — or at least to dull their impact if they are reawakened. These could be useful for treating victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as soldiers or torture victims. Tests of a drug called propranolol, which blocks stress hormones that etch memories in the brain have been promising enough for researchers to conduct larger studies in several countries, including the US, Canada, France and Israel. They emphasise that drugs only blunt bad memories without erasing them.

The prospect of “therapeutic forgetting” is controversial amongst bioethicists, who fear that it could be used in trivial ways or could numb our moral sensibility. “You can easily imagine a scenario of ‘I was embarrassed at my boss’s party last night, and I want to take something to forget it so I can have more confidence when I go into the office tomorrow,’ ” said David Magnus, co-director of Stanford University’s Center for Biomedical Ethics. “It’s not hard to imagine that it will end up being used much more broadly.”

However, Professor Roger Pitman, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, contends that PTSD is a medical disorder just as much as a broken leg. “I don’t say they don’t have legitimate concerns, but it’s hard to argue we shouldn’t pursue this just because of ethical speculations.”