Heart Attack Meds Could Remove the Bad From Bad Memories

By Rachel Cernansky | February 17, 2009 11:50 am

heartpill.jpgPeople may become less vulnerable to bad memories by taking drugs commonly used to treat heart conditions, say Dutch researchers in a paper published in Nature Neuroscience. They believe beta-blocker drugs, usually given to patients following a heart attack or to manage hypertension, could help people suffering from anxiety and other  consequences from tramautic experiences.

Led by Merel Kindt, the research team created a fearful memory in 60 subjects by associating a photograph of a spider with an electric shock. A day later, participants who had been given propranolol, a beta-blocker drug, showed less fear when exposed to the image again than did those who were given a placebo. The effect persisted even after the drug was out of the system and the subjects were retested. “The people did not forget seeing the photograph of the spider, but the fear associated with the image was erased” says Kindt [Science News].

This new use for beta-blockers depends on the mental mechanics involved with storing and remembering: Each time a memory is recalled it changes a little, and the new version is recorded in the long-term memory stash via brain chemical fluctuations in a process called reconsolidation. The beta-blockers could interfere with [certain other] brain chemicals, blocking reconsolidation of the emotional component of the memory, but leaving the rest of the memory intact [Science News]. Scientists are excited by the implications that the discovery could have for treating patients dealing with anxiety.

At question, however, are the medical ethics involved in tampering with the mind. A mental health expert in Britain said he was concerned about the “fundamentally pharmacological” approach to people with problems such as phobias and anxiety. He said the procedure might also alter good memories and warned against an “accelerated Alzheimer’s” approach [BBC].

“It’s likely that any emotional memory, happy or sad, recalled after taking the drug would be dulled,” Kindt speculates. But patients with fear-based anxiety disorders probably aren’t thinking about the happy moments of their lives; they are obsessed with the traumatic moments, the scientists say [Science News].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Emotions and the Brain: Fear
DISCOVER: 33. How to Erase a Single Memory
Discoblog: Edible EKGs? New Pill Can Measure Your Heart Rate

Image: Flickr / dpade1337

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain
  • http://clubneko.net nick

    It’s not like the non-pharmacological approaches have had that much effect on people with chronic anxiety… if they did we wouldn’t be studying the effects of these drugs on traumatized patients.

  • Jill

    Hypnosis works better than medicines for treating many things including anxiety and phobias. Unfortunately most people turn to hypnosis as a last resort instead of as their first choice. Hypnosis works without any harmful side effects and is usually a permanent solution for whatever problem you want to correct. Find a hypnotist trained by a nationally recognized organization such as the NGH (national guild of hypnotists). You can find them at NGH.net

  • Salane

    You obviously never had high doses of a beta blocker. what was I going to say again. Oh yea beta blocker really screw with short term memory.

  • Rebecca

    In an emergent setting, hypnosis is not the first thought that comes to mind. American Heart Association protocol dictates Aspirin, Morphine, Beta Blocker, Nitrogycerine, Oxygen. The morphine and the beta blocker are BOTH understood in the medical community to have anxiety relieving componants. If the research is just now supporting it, more power to them. Health care professionals can speak from first hand knowledge.

  • Suzanne

    Did they say something about the possiblity of these drugs causing “accelerated Alzheimer’s” – That scares me. I wonder what the percentage of people who have had heart attatcks and taken thier meds afterwards, then did end up with “accelerated Alzheimer’s” – ?

  • http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience Ed Yong

    Sigh.

    They don’t “erase traumatic memories”. See here for an actual summary of the research, including a comment from the lead research on how the media have overblown this story.

    And here for a dissection on said ridiculous hypefest. Including the “actual” quote from the “mental health expert” who made the “accelerated Alzheimer’s” comment. You decide whether the bit the BBC took was an accurate reflection of the actual comment.

  • Amos Kenigsberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Ed: We make clear in the body of the post that the propranolol leaves the memory intact but removes or decreases its traumatic quality. So I don’t think it’s fair to imply that the post is in need of complete re-education—the main text was basically correct, though I agree that the language in the title was a little misleading; I changed it. (The original title was “Heart Attack Meds Could Also Erase Traumatic Memories.”)

    I do think the BBC’s summary of Farmer’s quote—and our summary of their summary—is accurate. You say his statement was “long and well-considered,” but honestly, most of its length is just boilerplate—”trauma is a big problem, this study is productive,” etc. The meat of the statement is his warning that we should not rush to use psychiatric drugs to remove remembered trauma, and that point is accurately recounted in both the BBC and in our post here. Cutting out the basically meaningless chaff of his statement seems fine to me.

    Also: He is the CEO of a publicly active group, and if he uses an obviously inflammatory phrase like “accelerated Alzheimer’s” to describe some researchers’ proposed mode of treatment, he must be prepared for that part of the quote to end up in the paper. And this was a prepared statement, not an off-the-cuff remark.

    Also also: The title of Mind’s/Farmer’s statement was “Don’t forget the side effects when erasing memories,” which makes the same error you criticized in this post. Doesn’t seem so “well-considered” in that light.

    Anywho, thanks for pointing out our error and covering the issue closely.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience Ed Yong

    Amos – I take your point about Farmer’s quote. And thanks for changing the headline on your post – I agree that the main body was fair and representative and was mainly talking about the headline. Apologies for any overreaction – the story’s made me hypersensitive.

  • http://glendawilson.com Glenda Wilson

    I was on beta-blockers to treat familiar tremors from 1978 -1986. During that time, it seemed that I was a different person -practically fearless. Almost every memory prior to taking Inderal is gone –my childhood, my marriages, and raising my children.

    Sadly, it seems that it not only wipes out the bad memories, but all the good ones as well. It is as though there was never any bonding with my parents or my children. I think I would rather have my memories than to have lost all the good ones.

    They are addictive and when doctors switched dosage to long acting I have severe –almost psychotic side effects to the point I had to be hospitalized and weaned off them.

  • Anthony

    So is this like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?

  • Amos Kenigsberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @ Ed: Yeah, I know all too well the feeling of seeing the MSM (and even—gasp—real science mags) butcher the science. Soon robots will help us stamp out all journalistic error…

  • BOBBY

    I NEED SUCH MEDS FOR MY PTSD; PLEASE PUSH THE MEDICAL DEPARTMENT TO POPULARIZE THIS MED ASAP; MENTAL DISABILITY IS THE NO.1 DISABILITY AMONG ALL THE DISABILITIES, HOPEFULLY THIS MIRACULOUS MEDICATION WILL CHANGE THE LIVES OF MANY PANIC-STRICKEN PEOPLE FOR THE BETTER;I PERSONALLY PREFER TO TRADE IN MY GOOD MEMORIES FOR ERASURE OF MY BAD MEMORIES; THE TRAUMATIC MEMORIES JUST CHANGE YOUR POINT OF VIEW OF THE WHOLE WORLD; I PERSONALLY PREFER BEING EMOTIONALLY NUMB TO BEING HEART-ACHY ALWAYS ! ON TOP OF THIS,WE CAN USE LIFE ETHICS TO REGULATE OUR SOCIAL AND PERSONAL CONDUCTS ! AND WE WILL BE ABLE TO GLORIFY GOD BETTER WITH A BETTER MENTAL HEALTH ! AND THE SOCIETY IS LESS WITH HATE CRIMES, LESS WITH HOMICIDE ARISING FROM HATRED, LESS WITH SUICIDES DUE TO ANXIETY AND PTSD ! LESS VIOLENCE,LESS HATRED, LESS ANXIETY, LESS FEAR THAT DISRUPTS OUR NORMAL LIFE ! AND HOPEFULLY IT IS MONEY-SAVING TOO, SO WE DO NOT SPEND BIG MONEY ON THOSE MENTAL MEDICATIONS OR MENTAL COUNSELLINGS FOR PHOBIAS, PTSD,DEPRESSION, STRESS AND ANXIETY; MENTAL MEDICATIONS ARE THE NO.1 POPULAR MEDS IN USA SO FAR ! SO WE PTSD PATIENTS DO NOT HAVE TO VENT OUR FRUSTRATION AND ANGER ONTO OURSELVES AND ONTO OTHERS, THE WHOLE NATION WILL BE IN PEACE ! PLEASE PROPAGATE THIS MEDICATION ASAP ! THANKS !

  • Brad Anderson

    Glinda;
    as a lifetime sufferer of PTSD, I have to tell you that some people HAVE no good memories, but simply varying degrees of bad ones; all attempts to deal with it are merely compensation, and ultimately backfire– including some “treatments,” which were traumatic in themselves. If there was a way to wipe out my entire memory in order to remove the pain I live with, every second of every day, I would do it. I can always get new memories, but I can’t live with bad ones. It’s the person’s decision to make, not the state’s.

  • Sarah W.

    The same arguments were made against anaesthetic, saying that “pain builds character” etc. Now we are finding that emotional trauma can be even more influential than physical.

  • alina

    For Bobby : email me at alina_arh69@yahoo.cm and I will help you about this treatment!

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