The patient was under local anaesthetic and conscious on the operating table when she heard the pathologist's voice over the intercom that the cancer was "really, really bad".
She screamed: "Oh, my God! Oh, my God! My kids! Oh, my ... my arm ..."
An anaesthetist injected a sedative called propofol into the patient's arm – producing a burning sensation.
Remarkably, after the operation was over, the patient had no memory of the bleak prognosis as propofol had a side-effect of stopping her memory of the intercom exchange between pathologist and surgeon from being stored in her brain.
Millions of people suffering post-traumatic stress can also benefit from mind-altering drugs that rid the brain of bad memories, says a legal scholar.
Yet the prospect of using drugs to dampen the memory of a distressing episode is thwarted by unfounded concerns about their misuse, says Adam Kolber, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School in New York. In a commentary in science journal Nature, he says there is a need for a more open attitude to the development and use of drugs that can alter memories, which many ethicists have opposed on the grounds that destroying memories risks altering peoples' personalities.
"Fears about pharmaceutical memory manipulation are overblown, argues the professor.
"Thoughtful regulation may some day be appropriate, but excessive hand-wringing now over the ethics of tampering with memory could stall research into preventing post-traumatic stress in millions of people. Delay could also hinder people already debilitated by harrowing memories from being offered the best hope of reclaiming their lives," he says.
Recent studies on laboratory animals have shown how memories can be manipulated with chemicals. One drug, called ZIP, has been shown in cocaine-addicted rats to block their ability to remember the locations where they were given cocaine.
"Other drugs, already tested in humans, may ease the emotional pain associated with memories of traumatic events. Indeed, the use of memory-altering drugs to treat addicts or victims of assaults, car accidents, natural disasters and terrorist attacks looks increasingly promising," says Professor Kolber.
But a US Presidential Commission on bioethics concluded in 2003 that memory is closely linked with a person's sense of self and that seeking a solution to post-traumatic stress in the form of a pill rather than psychological counselling could be destructive.
Professor Kolber says that some ethicists argue that if people havethe power to alter their life stories with drugs, this may ultimately weaken their sense of identity and make their lives less genuine. But the argument is not persuasive, he claims.
"Some memories, such as those of rescue workers who clean up scenes of mass destruction, may have no redeeming value. Drugs may speed up the healing process more effectively than counselling,," he says. "Underlying these concerns is an unjustified aversion to pharmaceutical methods of managing trauma."
An exception may be drugs to alter factual recall, such as administering a memory-destroying drug to a crime witness required to give evidence in court. In these cases, doctors could be required to contact police, he says.Reuse content