Heart of America Radio reports on how scientists are developing a pill to reduce the terror of a traumatic event.
Imagine a world where victims of violence or trauma pop a pill to ease their feelings of terror and dim the memory of a car accident, rape, or other assault. That's the hope of scientists at Harvard University who are developing a pill they say will prevent post-traumatic stress disorder in such victims. They are hoping to alter the brain's reaction to traumatic events, lessening the strength of memories and softening the emotions they evoke.
Pitman has been conducting research on PTSD for the past 20 years, and says that scientists have a pretty good idea of how it works. When a person experiences a traumatic event, he says, the body releases adrenaline, a stress hormone that prepares the body to run from or attack an aggressor. When adrenaline and its cousin noradrenaline enter the brain, he says, they act on the amygdala region, which is involved in fear and memory. Basically, Pitman says, "The same adrenaline that's making you run fast has the ability to strengthen your memory."
This system was useful back in prehistoric times, Pitman says, when someone who was chased by a crocodile, for example, would need to remember where that predator lived. But in modern times, Pittman says, "This mechanism goes too far. People who have PTSD, the memories are so strong, they can have trouble living in the present." For example, people involved in car accidents "get to the point where they're having nightmares and can't drive any longer," Pittman says. "If someone is raped in an elevator, they donï¿½t want to ride elevators again."
To counter the harmful effects of stress hormones like adrenaline on memory, Pitman has been experimenting with propranolol, a drug commonly used to treat hypertension. Since propranolol blocks the action of adrenaline and noradrenaline, Pitman thought it might prevent memories from being burned too deeply in the amygdala of the brain. "We figured we could give people this propranolol to affect the memory before it gets laid down," he explains. Pitman is quick to point out that the drug doesnï¿½t cause people to remember things differently, just less strongly. "We would say it would more approximate a normal memory," he says.
Sounds like a win/win situation, but not everyone is convinced that propranolol is such a great idea. Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, sees about 400 rape cases a year and says she and her colleagues have concerns about the use of the pill. Scaramella says it's important for women to feel in control when they are recovering from a sexual assault, and taking propranolol means giving up control over their memories. Secondly, she says, "anyone who took that medicine could be in trouble in a legal case," since defense lawyers may say that the victim was so unstable that she needed drugs to cope, or that the propranolol may have altered her memory about the assault. Other ethicists say the pill may erase the rage that victims will need to go on and prosecute their attackers.
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