Erasing the Pain of the Past

"I'd take it in a second," said Sgt. Michael Walcott, an Iraq War veteran, referring to an experimental drug with the potential to target and erase traumatic memories.

Walcott, who served in a Balad-based transportation unit that regularly took mortar fire, now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Since returning to the United States two years ago, he has been on antidepressants and in group therapy as he tries to put his life back together and heal from the psychological scars of war.

"There are moments," he said, "when you just want be alone and don't want to deal with everyone telling you that you've changed."

There are many others like Walcott. The Army estimates that one in eight soldiers returning home from Iraq suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms of the disorder, once known as shell shock, include flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of detachment, irritability, trouble concentrating and sleeplessness.

Much about why painful memories come back to haunt soldiers and those who live through other traumatic experiences remains unknown. Scientists say that is because little is known about how the brain stores and recalls memories.

But in their early efforts to understand the way in which short-term memories become long-term memories, researchers have discovered that certain drugs can interrupt that process. Those same drugs, they believe, can also be applied not just in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event — like a mortar attack, rape or car accident — but years later, when an individual is still haunted by memories of event.

The hope is that a post-traumatic stress disorder patient can work with a psychiatrist and focus a traumatic event, take one of these drugs and then slowly forget that event. With that hope, however, comes a series of ethical concerns. What makes up our personalities — the essence of who we are as individuals — if not the collected memories of our experiences?

"This is all very preliminary," said Dr. Roger Pitman, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist. "We're just getting started. There is some promising preliminary data but no conclusions."

Much of the research Pitman is currently conducting on human subjects at Massachusetts General Hospital focuses on altering memories in the immediate aftermath of a specific type of trauma — automobile accidents. Subjects who arrive in the hospital's emergency room are prescribed either the drug propranolol or a placebo.

Propranolol was originally developed to treat high blood pressure, but its effect on the hormone adrenaline has made it popular among actors dealing with severe stage fright, and scientists are now using it in their research on memory.

"There is a period of time after you first learn something before it's retained," Pitman explained. "This is called consolidation."

Some research has shown that stress hormones, particularly adrenaline, make that process faster and more intense.

"That's why you remember what you were doing the morning of Sept. 11, better than August 11," he said.

Some scientists believe that post-traumatic stress disorder is the result of too much adrenaline entering the brain at the moment the memory of a traumatic event is being consolidated, or stored, for the first time.

But "the real hot topic," Pitman said, is not consolidation but reconsolidation, the process by which an old memory is recalled and the same "window of opportunity" to alter it with drugs is opened for a second time.

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