Erasing the Pain of the Past
March 20, 2007 — -- "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 —