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Drugs could cleanse brain of bad memories

Fears about how drugs manipulate a person's memory are overblown, claims law professor Adam Kolber
  • @SteveAConnor

Millions of people who suffer from post-traumatic stress after a harrowing experience could benefit from mind-altering drugs that can rid the brain of bad memories, a legal scholar has suggested.

Yet the prospect of using drugs to dampen the memory of a distressing episode in someone's life is being thwarted by unfounded concerns about their misuse, according to Adam Kolber, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School in New York.

In a commentary published in the science journal Nature, Professor Kolber 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.

"The fears about pharmaceutical memory manipulation are overblown. 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," Professor Kolber says.

"Delay could also hinder people who are already debilitated by harrowing memories from being offered the best hope yet of reclaiming their lives."

Recent studies on laboratory animals have revealed fascinating insights into how memories can be manipulated with chemicals. One drug called ZIP, for instance, has been shown to block the ability of cocaine-addicted rats to remember the places where they had regularly been 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," Professor Kolber says.

However, 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 may be destructive. Professor Kolber says that some ethicists have argued that if people are given the power to alter their life stories with drugs, this could ultimately weaken their sense of identity and could make their lives less genuine.

"These arguments are not persuasive. Some memories, such as those of rescue workers who clean up scenes of mass destruction, may have no redeeming value," Professor Kolber says. "Drugs may speed up the healing process more effectively than counselling, arguably making patients more true to themselves than they would be if a traumatic experience were to dominate their lives."

Underlying all of these concerns is an unjustified aversion to the pharmaceutical methods of managing trauma, he adds.

A possible exception would be drugs that are specifically designed to alter a person's factual recall in certain contexts, such as administering a memory-destroying drug to a crime witness who will be required to give evidence in court, Professor Kolber says.

In these cases, doctors could be required to contact police before prescribing memory-dampening drugs.