Scientists Work On "Trauma Pill" That Erases Bad Memories

Suppose you could erase bad memories from your mind. Suppose, as in a recent movie, your brain could be wiped clean of sad and traumatic thoughts. That is science fiction. But real-world scientists are working on the next best thing. They have been testing a pill that, when given after a traumatic event like rape, may make the resulting memories less painful and intense. Will it work? It is too soon to say. Still, it is not far-fetched to think that this drug someday might be passed out along with blankets and food at emergency shelters after disasters like the tsunami or Hurricane Katrina. Psychiatrist Hilary Klein could have offered it to the man she treated at a St. Louis shelter over the Labor Day weekend. He had fled New Orleans and was so distraught over not knowing where his sisters were that others had to tell Klein his story. "This man could not even give his name, he was in such distress. All he could do was cry," she said. Such people often develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a problem first recognized in Vietnam War veterans. Only 14 percent to 24 percent of trauma victims experience long-term PTSD, but sufferers have flashbacks and physical symptoms that make them feel as if they are reliving the trauma years after it occurred. Scientists think it happens because the brain goes haywire during and right after a strongly emotional event, pouring out stress hormones that help store these memories in a different way than normal ones are preserved. Taking a drug to tamp down these chemicals might blunt memory formation and prevent PTSD, they theorize. Some doctors have an even more ambitious goal: trying to cure PTSD. They are deliberately triggering very old bad memories and then giving the pill to deep-six them. The first study to test this approach on 19 longtime PTSD sufferers has provided early encouraging results, Canadian and Harvard University researchers report. "We figure we need to test about 10 more people until we've got solid evidence." said Alain Brunet, a psychologist at McGill University in Montreal who is leading the study. More...

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