Could New Pill Erase Painful Memories?

| by Kate Wharmby Seldman

Researchers have discovered that it may be possible to take a pill to get rid of painful memories.

In a study, researchers had 33 college students watch a video telling the story of a little girl whose hand is severely injured while she's making a birdhouse with her grandfather. The story's a painful one to sit through, and causes many viewers emotional distress, even though the story concludes with the girl's hand being saved at the hospital. One of the most disturbing images in the video is one of the little girl's injured hand.

Study leader Marie-France Marin, a doctoral student at The Center for Studies on Human Stress at the University of Montreal, then collected saliva samples from the students, which were used to measure cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress-related hormone. Three days later, the students were given one of three drugs: one was a placebo, and the other two had different doses of a medicine that limits the amount of cortisol in the body.

According to a story on the MSNBC site, Marin gave the students these drugs to see if cortisol is linked to the preservation of emotionally charged memories. She and her colleagues wanted to learn whether limiting cortisol could blur these memories, even after they'd already been created.

Marin's theory seemed to work: those students who'd taken the cortisol-limiting drug found their memory of the video presentation was blurred, especially the more painful parts. The students who'd taken the higher dose of the drug found they could recall even less about the video. Four days later, the students still had problems remembering the video and its emotional impact.

This study could lead to a breakthrough treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Cortisol-dampening drugs could help PTSD patients let go of a traumatic memory's emotional hold on them. A patient could take the drug, then go over the traumatic events with a psychologist to see if the memory had in fact been blurred.

Marin says she's also interested in the fact that memories aren't as set in stone as we may think they are. Each time we go over them in our heads, they can be edited or viewed in a different light, with different levels of emotion attached to them.

“It might be that we can actually change them and create false memories,” says Marin. “It’s a question that should be investigated. Using this paradigm, can memories still change once they’re formed? If they can, that raises some ethical questions when it comes to legal testimony.”