The sub-heading “A pill to dampen memories stirs hope and worry” opens a reflective essay in Nautilus by Emily Anthes on the neuroscience and ethics of experiments using drugs in PTSD treatment that deliberately impair memory. “Promising studies have also stirred controversy, with some bioethicists warning that memory-dulling drugs could have profound, unintended consequences for our psyches and our society. The debate is raising tricky questions about what — and who — memory is for,” writes Anthes. She notes that George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics famously protested that society needs survivors of the Holocaust to remember, “lest we all forget the very horrors that haunt them.” Some psychiatric clinicians called the statement “irresponsible” towards PTSD sufferers.
Some research, Anthes adds, has suggested the drug propranolol is not erasing people’s recollections of the facts, but just muting their emotional and physiological responses. “In a study of healthy volunteers, subjects who received uncomfortable electric shocks after viewing certain slides were perfectly capable of recalling which images foretold a shock after they’d taken propranolol. But they did not become fearful when they saw the images again, unlike control subjects who took a placebo,” writes Anthes.
If Trauma Victims Forget, What Is Lost to Society? (Nautilus, July 17, 2014)