New Treatment to Erase Memories…But Should We? New Treatment to Erase Memories…But Should We?

New Treatment to Erase Memories…But Should We?

Picture a world where traumatic memories can simply be erased. That’s what doctors are trying to achieve at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital in Boston. Their most recent study demonstrated that application of xenon gas has the ability to block or reduce the memory of painful events in laboratory animals. In announcing their findings, lead researcher Dr. Edward G. Meloni, a psychologist at McLean Hospital, said, “It’s an exciting breakthrough, as this has the potential to be a new treatment for individuals suffering from PTSD.”

The team conditioned mice to associate certain events with painful shocks. After the mice were treated to a burst of xenon gas, their fear response associated with those events went away for up to two weeks. Xenon has the ability to interrupt the memory formation process, but it was unclear from the experiment whether this could dissipate older memories, or just prevent the formation of new ones. A great benefit of using xenon gas is that it is already being used for medical purposes such as imaging and anesthesia.

The Noble Gas

Xenon is a noble gas, which means that its atomic structure is stable and doesn’t react with other substances very easily, making it easier to deploy with greater precision. Meloni explained, “Xenon gets in and out of the brain very quickly. This suggests that xenon could be given at the exact time the memory is reactivated, and for a limited amount of time, which may be key features for any potential therapy used in humans.”

Similarly, helping those who suffer from PTSD is a noble goal. The National Institute of Health reports that at least 7.7 million people are diagnosed with this disorder, including one third of all veterans. It seems at first like a perfect arrangement of a precision treatment option for an expanding medical challenge.

Never Forget

A year ago, MIT Technology Review permitted Bioethics professor Arthur Caplan to consider the hidden dangers of targeted medical forgetting stemming from research by Daniela Schiller at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Her work on addiction, phobias and profound anxiety disorders let her to experiment on deleting traumatic memories using pharmaceuticals coupled with electroshock.

Caplan points out that at the cultural level, the motto “Never Forget” has been applied to many atrocities, from the Holocaust to 9/11, suggesting that forgetting is the first step to allowing history to repeat itself. There are obvious parallels at a personal level. Beyond that, losing our most unpleasant memories rob us of the ability to feel sympathy or empathy. Finally, citing “neuralyzers” from the movie Men in Black, Caplan suggested that if this technology becomes practical, there are many organizations, governments and private firms that might easily take it under their own authority to determine what kinds of memories need to be deleted.

Human Trials

Meloni plans to begin human trials within the year and quickly move on to PTSD patients. The larger question may become how doctors will be able to help patients cope with ingrained visceral responses to events that they no longer remember.

  • I have PTSD from when I was 7 years old. Every trauma I have endured since then just adds another layer to my anxiety, depression, and nightmares. I have gone through therapy called EMDR, which has worked wonders for me. I believe it would work for anyone if they were brave enough to face the most horrific events they have experienced. The best part of this therapy is the memories aren’t erased, they are essentially moved from the emotional part of our memory to an unemotional part. The memory stays intact, but does not cause the emotions and physical reactions that we all deal with, but find hard to explain. If this post helps just one person, I’m glad that I shared it.

    • Alex

      Interesting point Christine, thanks for sharing. I have a lot of friends suffering from this condition and I’m glad to hear something has worked well for you!

    • Jennifer

      I am so happy EMDR helped you, Christine! It changed my life, too, and I am so grateful good, effective modalities such as this exist to help people overcome their traumatic wounds that stubbornly hang on. Bravo!

      • Hello Jennifer, Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post and for the encouraging words. I’m glad to hear that it worked for you as well. Peace

    • david

      This EMDR treatment you speak of christine, sounds a lot safer than simply erasing the memories altogether like in the research above. i don’t believe things can just disappear without repercussions. very strong of you to face these memories head on. well done and I’m so happy it has worked for you

      • David, thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. I agree with you regarding the repercussions of trying to make horrific memories disappear. I think it would be even more horrifying if a memory was “erased”, and then popped into someone’s mind, and they wouldn’t even understand why they have that vision or what it means. I was reluctant to receive any treatment that would erase my traumatic memories altogether. The trauma I mentioned, was that my Aunt was murdered when I was almost 7 years old. I have only a few memories of her, but the memories are so comforting, and I wanted to keep the memories without feeling the pain of losing her. EMDR was the perfect treatment for me, as I still have all of the loving and wonderful memories, but no longer feel the deep-seated pain of a 7 year-old who’s world was torn apart that awful day. If you are searching for some type of therapy to deal with PTSD or other ill effects from a past trauma, I would highly recommend this treatment. Take care, Christine

  • Chaoticblu

    Way to torture an innocent animal Harvard -_- I don’t support this or any research that does this. How about you doctors condition yourselves if you are so adamant about using violence? So yeah, a big NO we shouldn’t use this technology from me, and ‘research’ needs to stop until it can be done humanely.

  • Why doesnt the president fight hand to hand to whoever president from whatever country? Sending all those people to be traumatized. And one question. Since it is told by some that Bush wanted oil from Middle East and started war for that oil, now should America want peace from Middle East?

  • violet powell

    How incredibly cruel to the mice involved! while I do see that this could be an incredible advancement in psychological healing for trauma patients, I don’t think it is the right way to go about it and is just perpetuating the negative approaches that have grown through humankind’s time on earth. instead of trying to heal the effects of war by hurting something else, why not work to eliminate the problem!

  • Hanalei2018

    Uncomfortable/painful memories, current or of the past in our lives. Should be discussed with a Professional to determine. Casses of violent rapes/abuse or seeing something horrific that is ongoing troubling the mind, I think Therapy should be considered. Really. That could be a sensitive direct decision that only the individual can conclude on taking final advice /making that judgement call on whether or not to erase memories of certain events that most effect their life/their well-being.