Playing with memory to alleviate pain

Jonah Lehrer’s new cover story for Wired explores new trials with PKMzeta inhibitors, drugs that some think could be used to erase memories.  These inhibitors may have the potential to erase memories themselves, in contrast to existing early-stage treatments using beta-blockers like propranolol, which reduce the negative experience of recalling a memory but leave the descriptive details of the memory intact. Such drugs hold potential for victims of PTSD, chronic pain, and other disorders linked to memory, but are a hotbed of debate:

The problem with eliminating pain, of course, is that pain is often educational. We learn from our regrets and mistakes; wisdom is not free. If our past becomes a playlist—a collection of tracks we can edit with ease—then how will we resist the temptation to erase the unpleasant ones? Even more troubling, it’s easy to imagine a world where people don’t get to decide the fate of their own memories. “My worst nightmare is that some evil dictator gets ahold of this,” Sacktor says. “There are all sorts of dystopian things one could do with these drugs.” While tyrants have often rewritten history books, modern science might one day allow them to rewrite us, wiping away genocides and atrocities with a cocktail of pills.

Those scenarios aside, the fact is we already tweak our memories—we just do it badly. Reconsolidation [a neurological process, read more about it in the article -DT] constantly alters our recollections, as we rehearse nostalgias and suppress pain. We repeat stories until they’re stale, rewrite history in favor of the winners, and tamp down our sorrows with whiskey. “Once people realize how memory actually works, a lot of these beliefs that memory shouldn’t be changed will seem a little ridiculous,” Nader says. “Anything can change memory. This technology isn’t new. It’s just a better version of an existing biological process.”

It’s a pretty notion—hey, this memory-alteration stuff is totally natural, man—but some ethicists and clinicians dispute whether this kind of therapy is acceptable. Researchers in the field counter that not treating suffering is cruel, regardless of the type of pain involved. We have a duty, they say, to take psychological pain seriously. … “If you’re in a car accident and you break your leg, everyone agrees we need to give you treatment and painkillers,” Nader says. “But if something terrible happens and your mind breaks, people conclude that treatment is a dangerous idea, at least if it’s effective. But what’s the difference?” Just think of all the poor souls in therapy, trying to talk themselves into a better place. These scientists point out that memory tweaks will one day be used in the same way—except that unlike CISD or Jungian analysis or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, these therapies could put permanent recovery just one pill away.

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