People who are haunted by visions of war and scenes of violence sometimes wish they could remove the bad memories from their minds. Medical researchers at Johns Hopkins University think that it may be possible someday.
A memory erasing drug is still a long way away. Its use would surely create many ethical problems. But according to a story in The Baltimore Sun, scientists feel they have a basis for it because of their discovery that proteins can be removed from the brain’s fear center to eliminate bad memories forever.
"When a traumatic event occurs, it creates a fearful memory that can last a lifetime and have a debilitating effect on a person's life," said Richard L. Huganir, professor and chair of neuroscience in the Hopkins School of Medicine to The Baltimore Sun. He thinks that his finding on the molecular process "raises the possibility of manipulating those mechanisms with drugs to enhance behavioral therapy for such conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder."
His research has gained interest from people involved in the mental health care industry. It also concerns some people.
Kate Farinholt, the executive director of the mental health support and information group, NAMI Maryland, says that a lot of people who suffer from a damaging event might be helped by erasing their memories. She also has a lot of unanswered questions about the concept.
"Erasing a memory and then everything bad built on that is an amazing idea, and I can see all sorts of potential," she said in The Sun. "But completely deleting a memory, assuming it's one memory, is a little scary. How do you remove a memory without removing a whole part of someone's life, and is it best to do that, considering that people grow and learn from their experiences."
Projects in the past have shown some forms of behavior therapy are able to erase memories. But it was also shown that a relapse can happen because the memory wasn’t completely gone.
Huganir and postdoctoral fellow Roger L. Clem examined that process and discovered a “window of vulnerability” when special receptor proteins are created. These proteins interpose signals that travel within the brain as painful memories are created. Since these proteins are unstable they can be removed easily with drugs or therapy during the window, making sure the memory is gone.
The groundwork has been laid for a medication that could erase people’s memories. While it would possibly be helpful for veterans, it has people questioning what the side effects could be.
Memories can be painful, but they can also shape a person’s identity and become a part of who they are. Some people learn things from painful experiences, what would happen to people who erase memories that have shaped their identity?
Would they lose a part of who they are? Would it leave huge gaps in their memory?
Some people, like veterans with PTSD have more than one painful memory. Can all of the mental scars be removed safely without having lobotomy like effects?
While a mind eraser is a popular alcoholic drink, this takes things a bit farther. People who are concerned about how this drug could be abused worry that it would be used on humans before it is ready.
Nobody knows what this mental health treatment will do to humans. Odds are that we will find out whether we are ready to or not.