In the 2004 movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," Jim Carrey’s character goes to a clinic to erase the memories of a painful breakup. Soon, this movie theme may become a reality. The Los Angeles Times reports that researchers from Johns Hopkins University have discovered a protein molecule that forms in the brain up to 48 hours after a traumatic experience. Now experts are creating a drug to attack the protein and effectively erase the memory.
Dr. Richard Huganir is the chair of Johns Hopkins University's neuroscience department and the lead on this study. Along with his postdoctoral associate, Roger Clem, Huganir has studied calcium-permeable AMPARs, the protein molecules that occur in the brain after a traumatic event. These molecules are extremely important in forming the circuitry of the ensuing memory.
How did Huganir come to this conclusion? He administered electric shocks to mice while playing a tone. One group of mice was given a drug to keep their brain awash in AMPARs. Another group was drug-free. Eventually, the shocks were taken away but the tone was still played. The group that was free of the AMPAR-enhancing drug eventually stopped reacting to the tone. But the group that had been given the AMPAR-enhancing drug still reacted in a strong manner. Experts think that humans would respond to the drug in a similar manner.
As Huganir points out, this procedure won’t entirely erase the memory of the event, but it may go far in stopping the debilitating emotions that flood the brain. Businessweek.com reports that this could be a key development for the 8 million Americans who currently suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
Of course, there are ethical and practical concerns with the new development. Kate Farinholt is the executive director of the mental health support and information group National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maryland. As she told the L.A. Times, "Erasing a memory and then everything bad built on that is an amazing idea, and I can see all sorts of potential. But completely deleting a memory, assuming it's one memory, is a little scary. How do you remove a memory without removing a whole part of someone's life, and is it best to do that, considering that people grow and learn from their experiences?" At the same time, Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University in Atlanta, told the L.A. Times that this drug wouldn’t be that different from behavior modification.
Ultimately, with this research, PTSD sufferers can see hope at the end of a nightmare. Huganir says that he continually gets e-mails from PTSD sufferers asking to be a part of the clinical trials for a possible drug.
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