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Give Mind-Altering Drugs a Chance

Recent studies in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) research have identified several pharmacological treatments that promise to lessen the emotional pain associated with memories of traumatic events. These recent advances have sparked early debates surrounding the ethics of pharmaceutically “dampening” memories, fears of unwanted memory manipulations, and misconceptions of full-blown memory erasing in the future. In a recent Nature article, Adam Kobler, a Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, and the editor of the Neuroethics and Law Blog, argues that these fears surrounding pharmaceutical memory manipulation are “overblown” and instead hinder important research that is needed to help individuals cope with and recover from emotionally distressing memories1.

Several drugs are undergoing research for their potential applications in PTSD, such as Propranolol, which is a non-selective beta-adrenergic blocker used to treat hypertension3. Preliminary research has shown that when taken even a few hours following a traumatic event, propranolol may prevent the development of PTSD symptoms. 

Kolber cites the US President’s Council on Bioethics as an early challenger to the use of memory altering drugs like Propranolol. The Council’s 2003 report claimed that such drugs aimed to manipulate memories could pose serious threats to an individuals “sense of identity” and “ability to lead true and honorable lives,” by discouraging individuals from taking the time to transform negative memories into positive ones2. To these concerns, Kobler counters with stories of depressed patients who often feel “like themselves for the first time” after taking antidepressants, and patients whose use of drugs could “speed up the healing process” allowing them the unburdened clarity to truly live their lives1. Considering these arguments, we might want to consider whether it is ethical to not provide such pharmaceutical treatments to individuals coping with the effects extreme trauma.

The ethical implications of pharmaceutical memory manipulation are heavily debated, even as many of these drugs remain in preliminary studies for their use in PTSD treatment. However, the ethical implications of non-pharmaceutical approaches to memory manipulation, such as cognitive behavioral treatment, are largely left un-debated. For example, exposure therapy is commonly used in treating PTSD and has well-documented clinical efficacy in modifying painful memories of traumatic events3. If cognitive behavioral therapies have similar effects in modulating how individuals experience difficult and emotionally charged memories, is it simply the fact that propranolol is a pharmaceutical intervention, that causes members of the public to leap to possibilities of manipulating and changing our core identities? 

While I do agree with Kobler that fears surrounding pharmaceutical memory manipulation are “overblown” (perhaps because they are uninformed), I can understand the caution of the public in leaping from non-pharmaceutical to pharmaceutical treatments for intervening with memories. Pharmaceutical interventions represent more of an invasive threat to our bodies and minds than behavioral therapies. This is where misinformation from the media (I imagine headlines of “new drugs to erase all your painful memories!”) causes an ill-informed public to associate advances in important research with scary invasions into their minds and most precious memories. Members of the scientific community play an essential role in being the first to inform members of the public of the mechanisms and effects of such drugs, and also of the immense benefit such drugs promise for individuals suffering from trauma. 

–Filomene Morrison
Neuroscience Graduate Program 

Want to cite this post?

Morrison, F. (2011). Give Mind-Altering Drugs a Chance. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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Sources and Additional Reading
1Kolber, A. Give memory-altering drugs a chance. Nature. 476, 275-276 (2011).
2President’s Council on Bioethics. Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Human Happiness Ch. 5, 205-273 (2003).
3Cukor, J., Spitalnick, J., Difede, J. Rizzo, A. & Rothbaum, B.O. Clin. Psychol. Rev. 29, 715-726 (2009).


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