Do you have any bad memories? Traumatic memories come in all shapes and sizes. Some are terrible gut-wrenching ones like being raped, beaten, or shot during combat. Others are based on the pain of watching a loved one suffer. Some memories hound us because we are responsible for someone else’s trauma, like the night one drove drunk and had a terrible accident. Still others are less intense on the posttraumatic stress disorder spectrum, like being bullied in school, or being dumped by the prettiest girl in class. In general, traumas have a way of haunting us: they are unpleasant at best and debilitating at worst. Wouldn’t it be nice if one could just forget them?
At Johns Hopkins University, there resides a family of mice who have experienced “forgetting”. The mice had been given an electric shock every time a loud sound boomed in their home – a laboratory run by Richard L. Huganir at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Thereafter, whenever they heard the sound, they would become paralyzed with fear, the trauma of the memory of the electrocution crippling them. Huganir wanted to understand the connection between the memory of trauma and the sensation of fear. He found that the amygdala (the area of the brain associated with memory recall) of the mice became flooded with a particular protein whenever the mice heard the sound they associated with electrocution. This protein was strengthening the circuitry responsible for the memory and thus inducing fear and unhappiness in the mice. By removing these proteins, Huganir discovered he could erase the memory of the electric shock permanently. The mice now had no reaction to the same sound that terrified them earlier: they had effectively forgotten the traumatic event. (For technical details, see here).
“This may sound like science fiction, the ability to selectively erase memories,” says Huganir. “But this may one day be applicable for the treatment of debilitating fearful memories in people, such as post-traumatic stress syndrome associated with war, rape or other traumatic events.”
He believes that by having people recall their traumatic memories, doctors will have a chance to remove the proteins that accompany the recall, and thereby eliminate the memory altogether. In other words, for a few hours of living through the memories of the trauma, therapists and drugs could together rid you of the noxious memory forever.
Now here’s a prickly question: is it good to get rid of all bad memories? Sure, you’d happily pay a few hundred dollars to trash yours, but do you want the pedophile that feels remorse to forget his guilt and trauma? Do you want the 17-year old who was drunk and crashed his car into yours to forget the memory of his mistake? What relieves an individual is often not optimal for society, which can benefit from the deterrent effects of horror, guilt and remorse. Also, preference for treatment should be given to sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is often the result of a threat to one’s physical and emotional integrity. But one can easily imagine that people will not be satisfied with having such stringent definitions of what constitutes trauma to limit their access to memory erasing drugs. We all have too much baggage not to want some relief from some of the unpleasantness of our past.
As science races ahead and researchers like Huganir make unexpected and revolutionary breakthroughs, we’ll increasingly be faced with such difficult choices. Have no doubt: thoughts such as the following will cascade through people’s minds when memory erasing prescription drugs become available: “I know it doesn’t seem traumatic to you, but it’s traumatic enough for me to want that drug. I understand the risks to society, which is why I don’t want just any Tom, Dick and Harry in society to have access to it. No one has the right to decide if I am eligible for a memory-erasing pill. Can I get it on the black market?”
The world is getting complicated …