Erasing the Pain of the Past

By getting soldiers, or others who have lived through harrowing experiences, to remember their traumatic experiences through talking therapy, the theory goes, the chance to target and erase those memories presents itself.

Reconsolidation remains a "controversial" theory according to Pitman, but Joseph LeDoux, a psychologist at New York University's Center for Neural Science, said his recent experiments with rats adds to evidence that it's real.

LeDoux is not trying to create a drug to treat humans. For him, the specific drug isn't important. What is important is understanding the process by which memories are retained and altered.

"The idea is that memories are vulnerable. They can be improved or weakened. The main point is that we're trying to understand how this all works rather than come up with a drug."

An Ethical Firestorm -- 'A Genie in the Bottle'

But the idea of improving or weakening people's memories gives many medical ethicists pause.

The President's Council on Bioethics has condemned memory-altering research. The National Institutes of Health, however, has funded some experiments that use propranalol for post-traumatic stress disorder treatment, and Pitman said he has received a grant from the Army to begin conducting similar research with Iraq veterans.

"There are several major concerns" about creating these kinds of drugs, said Felicia Cohn, a medical ethicist at University of California at Irvine's School of Medicine. "Is the act of altering memories even an appropriate medical intervention?" she asked.

Another set of "issues is related to consequences. What are the effects of altering a particular person's memory but not changing the context the person is living in. We might erase a young girl's memory of a rape, but people around her will still know and inadvertently remind her," Cohn said.

"It becomes a genie in the bottle question. Once a drug is available for use, it gets used appropriately and inappropriately. People could start going to physicians to forget they love chocolate. … Is it just for post-traumatic stress disorder and rape victims? Where do we draw the line? Who gets to decide what is horrific enough?"

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