Thursday, July 28, 2005

Brave new world: medical memory erasure - and the societal effects of widespread use of psychoactive medications

BBC NEWS | Health | Beta-blockers 'blot out memories'

A popular theme in science fiction and, recently, in films -- coming to a pharmacy near you:
Cornell University psychiatrists are carrying out tests using beta-blockers, the journal Nature reports.

The drug has been shown to interfere with the way the brain stores memories.

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects around one in three of people caught up in such events, and memories can be triggered just by a sound or smell.

People with PTSD are given counselling, but because it is not always effective, researchers have been looking for alternative therapies.

However there are concerns that a drug which can alter memories could be misused, perhaps by the military who may want soldiers to become desensitised to violence.

The beta-blocker propranolol has been found to block the neurotransmitters involved in laying down memories.

Studies have shown that rats who have learned to fear a tone followed by an electric shock lose that fear if propranolol is administered after the tone starts.

The Cornell University team are reported to be seeing similar results in early studies in humans...

Margaret Altemus, who is one of the psychiatrists working on the study, told the journal: "The memory of the event is associated with the fear, and they always occur together."...
This has obvious issues for the millions of people who take beta blockers for hypertension and heart disease. How, one wonders, do these meds change their attitudes?

Incidentally, back when I was a very naive youth about 1980, I wrote a (mercifully immediately buried) paper for a population agency on the possible psychosocial effects of androgen-positive birth control pills on a female population. Given how androgens change behavior, I wondered how these behavioral changes would propagate across millions of young women. Would they become more assertive? What would happen to that behavior if the pill formulation changed? How will pill formulation and use track social attitudes toward work and home in industrialized nations? What were the social engineering implications of one pill formulation versus another?

Ahh, those were the days ...

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