A new investigation by ABC News looks into the latest developments in drugs that could alter, or even erase, people's memories. According to the report, post-traumatic stress disorder patients, including soldiers, could benefit from drugs such as Propranolol - a drug designed to treat high blood pressure.
The ABC investigation looks at the ways scientists understand how short-term memories become long-term memories. The report says the hope is that a patient could go through therapy, focusing on the traumatic event while taking one of these drugs, and eventually the memory will fade.
But for many, including the President's Council on Bioethics, this is an unethical area of research. If memory-altering drugs are in fact developed, what are the implications?
Many philosophers have argued that memories are the food that enriches our soul. Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant but fictional detective, refused to memorize everything; he compartmentalized and prioritized what he wanted "filed" away in his memory.
The beauty of our memory is that we can make it whatever we want.
For some of us, our memories are all that we have left. I remember my father always referring to his younger days and how just thinking about the memories from 20 to 30-plus years ago made him feel happy, especially as he looked at his grandchildren. But clearly, this might not be true for all of us. The way we think and remember could have a tremendous impact on our health. The main culprit: stress.
Everyone is under some kind of stress — every day — good stress and bad stress. The good stress could be something like a new job or buying your first home. The bad stress could be anything from a difficult financial situation to a sick family member to missing a train or trying to hail a cab for more then an hour in midtown Manhattan... in pouring rain.
Short-lived stress tends to have limited lifespan and rarely affects long-term health. But sometimes stress becomes chronic and difficult to identify. Stress manifests itself through feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, frustration, guilt or excitement. One's moods start to fluctuate. Some people drink or smoke, others opt for healthier outlets such as jogging. And who can forget retail therapy? Eventually, your body starts to ache here and there, first a little bit, then more and more.
Those may seem like "phantom aches" at first, but as time goes by they can become legitimate physical health threats. If left unchecked, they can ultimately affect our physical health, leading to effects especially in our immune system and blood pressure oscillations. And when our immune system weakens, we are a lot more susceptible to illnesses which our body would under normal circumstances be able to fight.
Sometimes managing stress is not hard. It's not a rocket science after all. But there is one group of people for whom stress is NO piece of cake. Have you heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that occurs following an extremely stressful experience or witnessing a life-threatening event, such as terrorist attacks, violent personal assaults, or natural disasters.
People suffering from PTSD have symptoms that include flashbacks, difficulty sleeping , mood changes, depression, the inability to deal with everyday life, etc. But make no mistake, these are not those nutty people walking around in ripped and filthy clothes, talking to themselves and their imaginary friends. They are fully functioning people, who often times, don't even know they have PTSD. The current treatments are limited to medications and psychological counseling.
According to the new ABC News report, it seems that what Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet found in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" may be the way of the future. Yes, erasing memories! It seems that scientists are creating treatments to erase bad memories...with a tiny little pill.
Canadian and Harvard University researchers are reporting preliminary results on 19 patients suffering from PTSD; the results seem encouraging. It seems that an old drug to treat high blood pressure, Propranalol, might be effective in making people forget their memories.
But how do you separate the PTSD from all other stress? How do you know how much and what you want to forget if some of it is suppressed in your awaken state and only creeps up on you when you are hoping to catch some Zz’s?
Are we no different from Mr. Holmes, but our compartmentalizing is not necessarily deliberate?
So how would this "miracle memory-eraser" work? It appears that when people experience a traumatic event the body releases adrenaline (stress hormone) burning the memories deep into the brain. Propranolol blocks the action of adrenaline dimming the memory of the event. The research is far from conclusive but promising.
Imagine a world without bad memories? Let's see, I'd like to forget my teens or the first time I began to notice that I was loosing my hair. BUT IS FORGETTING A GOOD THING? I do not know. A part of me feels that memories make us stronger and shape who we are. I also understand when it is better to forget.
Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at FOXNews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.
Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.