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Health Team

Fear-inhibiting drug might wipe bad memories

Posted February 27, 2009 3:41 p.m. EST
Updated January 13, 2010 10:19 a.m. EST

WRAL Health Team

Researchers in Europe say that a pill could help millions of people who suffer from post-traumatic stress or from phobias.

The pill is a beta-blocker designed to regulate blood pressure, but researchers found that it might also block out bad memories.

A victim of a 1996 IRA bombing in Manchester, England, said he hopes that a pill can help him forget that day.

"I would love for the nightmares to stop, the flashbacks," the man said.

Researchers in Amsterdam said the pill could also help American veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars who suffer from post-traumatic stress triggered by violent events. People with phobias, such as fear of spiders or of heights, could also be helped.

Researchers said the drug, propranolol, works by easing certain memories.

"A beta-blocker can lessen that association of a negative memory with a particular sight, sound or smell," said Dr. Vastal Thakkar, of New York University's Langone Medical Center.

For example, a person with a fear of heights could take a pill and might forget the memory that caused the phobia.

Propranolol targets the brain's amygdala region, which processes emotional information and helps people learn to respond to fear.

Some experts fear the drug could also cause changes in people's personalities, because who we are is linked to our memories.

The bombing victim said that despite his unpleasant memories, he shares that concern.

"I would love to be able to have a panic-free life," he said. "But if someone handed me the drug tomorrow, I would be very, very dubious about the after-effects."

Researchers said their work has not yet produced any conclusive results.