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Ethics and Memory-Altering Drugs

In the last several years new research has come out that may indicate that our memories are not set in stone and may perhaps be erasable. In the article Give memory-altering drugs a chance, author Adam Kolber presents many ethical challenges facing research of memory altering drugs. Kolber writes that society is alarmed by the prospect of altering memories fearing a person’s sense of identity may be lost as well as the ability to lead a true and honorable life. However, this fear and excessive debate over the ethics of memory alteration is, at this point, extreme and could delay key research in therapies for people who are debilitated by their memories. I believe that the current research on memory modification is worth pursing and with proper regulations, like any intense therapy, can meet most ethical challenges.

Current research has shown that beta blockers, used to control hypertension like propranolol, can reduce the emotional association to a memory when taken after a distressing event. One such study found that patients who received two weeks of propranolol treatment showed a significant reduction in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptom levels compared to the control group.1 However, this line of research only suggests that emotional salience of these memories can be reduced, not the memories themselves. Ongoing studies in rodents have suggested that if impeding the process of memory consolidation, either during the initial consolidation or after memory retrieval, memories can be erased.2 Many of these studies require direct drug infusions into the brain and are currently not applicable to humans.

Kolber writes that the use of pharmaceuticals to alter memories has led many bioethicists to argue that rather than seeking a pill bottle, we should do the rewarding emotional work to change a bad experience into a good one. I believe this argument is not at all persuasive. It is possible that some memories, war or natural disasters for example, have no positive aspects to them. Some people who experience these events are very negatively affected by their memories. These pharmaceuticals may be a key tool in aiding and accelerating counseling. Schiller et al recently published a study that propose noninvasive techniques, no pharmaceutical intervention, which are able to eliminate fearful memories in humans3. However, studies with similar paradigms to the Schiller et al study in rodents have produced opposite and varying results under what appear to be identical conditions4-5. These studies seem to indicate that behavioral manipulation alone may not be an effective treatment for every patient, and that the aid of pharmaceuticals could be very beneficial to these patients. Kolber cites psychiatrist Peter Kramer who describes, in his book Listening to Prozac, that some patients even report feeling more like themselves after taking antidepressants.

Future research into these potential beneficial effects of memory altering pharmaceuticals should not be prohibited; however ethical concerns may reveal contexts under which these drugs would need to be regulated. Kolber writes that there is already a precedence to prevent egregious uses citing the use of alcohol to prevent a person testifying is an obstruction of justice. Researcher’s should be encouraged to pursue new therapies for people trying to cope with trauma rather than dissuaded by potential ethical concerns that with proper regulation, could be avoided.

–Katie MacPherson
Neuroscience Graduate Program

Want to cite this post?

MacPherson, K. (2011). Ethics and Memory-Altering Drugs. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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1.  Vaiva G. et al Biol. Psychiatry 54, 947-949 (2002)
2.  Nader K. et al Nat Rev Neurosic 1, 216-219 (2000)
3.  Schiller D. et al Nature 463, 49-53 (2010)
4.  Monfils M. et al Science 324, 951-955 (2010)
5.  Chan W. et al Learn Mem 17, 512-521 (2010)


  1. Very interesting article! Thanks.


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