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The Benefits of Memory-Altering Drugs

Pharmaceutical drugs that dampen memories and/or dissociate memories from physiological reactions have the potential to provide powerful benefits for society. There are widespread wars, natural disasters, and other traumatic events that cause people to suffer from their memories of these events, the most extreme manifestation being PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder has been notoriously difficult to treat with therapy alone and the addition of pharmaceutical drugs to the treatment regimen may speed the healing process and make it more complete. Propanolol, for example, has been shown to reduce physiological responses during mental imagery of a traumatic event (Brunet et al. 2007). In PTSD, strong physiological responses tag memories as important and increase the frequency with which the brain recalls the traumatic memory, thereby driving a positive feedback loop, which is difficult to disrupt. A drug like propanolol that decreases physiological responses associated with a traumatic memory may be a promising way to disrupt the positive feedback loop and pave the way towards a faster and more efficient healing process.

Drug addiction is another illness that could greatly benefit from the application of these memory-dampening pharmaceutical drugs. Drug addiction is driven in part by reward learning mechanisms in the brain, such that learned associations between cues and illicit drugs contribute strongly to the addiction. People who are recovering from drug addiction may fall into drug usage again if they walk by a particular street or see a certain person that they strongly associate with the rewards of using the illicit drug. One study found that a drug called ZIP causes cocaine-addicted rats to forget the locations where they had received cocaine (Li Y.-Q. et al. 2011). Drugs comparable to ZIP that are developed for humans could help drug addicts unlearn strong associations that drive them to relapse, thereby speeding the rehabilitation process.

These memory-dampening drugs have great promise in treating debilitating disorders and continued research should not be delayed or hampered by the unwarranted ethical arguments against them. Some bioethicists argue that the use of these drugs may weaken peoples’ sense of identity and cause them lead less genuine lives. Instead, these bioethicists argue, people suffering from trauma or addiction should go through the difficult work of therapy rather than resorting to pharmaceuticals. This argument is weak because oftentimes therapy and pharmaceutical drugs are working towards the same end—unlearning associations as well as decoupling memories from physiological reactions—but accomplish them through different means. For example, one study demonstrated that a non-pharmaceutical approach allowed subjects to forget a learned association between a visual cue and a shock (Schiller at al. 2010).

The bioethicists’ arguments are not so much about the end goals that therapy and pharmacological interventions are striving for—as this distinction is weak—but instead belie a bias against pharmaceutical intervention itself. If we could successfully treat drug addiction and PTSD with therapy alone, these bioethicists might have a leg to stand on. But as it stands, these disorders and illnesses are extremely difficult to treat and there is a high rate of relapse. If the application of pharmaceutical drugs could increase the speed and efficacy of recovery, it seems unethical to deny people this treatment option. If further research reveals the efficacy, side effects, and cost of pharmacological interventions to be less optimal than treatment with therapy alone, we can decide then to abandon it. However, because it shows promise at this point in time, we should pursue research into these pharmacological interventions or risk forgoing discovering a treatment option that could potentially heal trauma faster and more completely than therapy alone. Perhaps one day we will learn how to treat mental illnesses and disorders without any pharmacological interventions, but until that day arrives, it is unethical to deprive people of the possibility of a speedier and more complete recovery afforded by pharmaceutical drugs.

–Melanie Pincus
Neuroscience Graduate Program

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Pincus, M. (2011). The Benefits of Memory-Altering Drugs. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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