Bad date last night? Take this pill and forget all about it.
In a bid to stem the harmful effects of fear triggered by haunting memories, psychologists have come up with a concoction that prevents the brain from reliving the bad experiences.
The findings may have implications for understanding and treating people suffering emotional disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, said University of Amsterdam psychologist Merel Kindt, the lead author of a paper in this week's issue of Nature Neuroscience.
Kindt and colleagues devised a test to see if the cycle of fear could be eased by interrupting the brain's ability to recreate a memory of a traumatic event.
Sixty volunteers were shown pictures of spiders and given a mild electrical shock to create bad memories. The next day, they saw the pictures again but half were given the drug propranolol, a beta-blocker commonly used to treat heart disease. The other half took a placebo pill.
The participants returned a third day and were shown the pictures again. The researchers found that people given propranolol had a much lower emotional response — measured by a startle reflex — to the images.
"The procedure did really eliminate a simple fear response, which is a promising basis for future treatments," Kindt wrote in an e-mail to Discovery News. "This was not possible before."
Psychologists typically try to treat memory-triggered stress disorders by teaching patents to modify their response to fear, but the technique is ineffective for many people.
"This method focuses on erasing the fear response," Kindt said.
Additional studies are planned to see if the results are long-lasting.
Daniel Sokol, who lectures on medical ethics at St. George's, University of London, cautioned that wiping out the effects of a bad memory may have unintentional consequences.
"I joined a chess club and lost to an eight-year girl," Sokol told Discovery News. "That was absolutely humiliating. I made a blunder, and I tell myself that I'll never make that mistake again. If you eradicate the memory, will the lesson still remain?
"A lot of our memories seem to be interconnected," he added. "I wonder if after the intervention if you could end up terribly confused, unable to understand why you're feeling a particular way. In essence, you might end up with some sort of dementia."