February 16, 2009

Blood Pressure Pill Might Erase Memories

According to a Dutch study published on Sunday, a widely available blood pressure pill could one day help people erase bad memories, possibly treating some anxiety disorders and phobias.

Merel Kindt, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam who led the study, said that the generic beta-blocker propranolol significantly weakened people's fearful memories of spiders among a group of healthy volunteers who took it.

"We could show that the fear response went away, which suggests the memory was weakened," Kindt said in a telephone interview with Reuters.

The findings might show a way for the drug to help people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems related to bad memories.

Therapists traditionally seek to teach people with such disorders strategies to build new association and block bad memories.  Kindt said the problem is that the memories remain and people often relapse.

A process known as reconsolidation is from animal studies that have shown that fear memories can change when recalled.  The researchers said that at this stage they are also vulnerable to beta-blockers like propranolol, which target neurons in the brain.

The experiment by Kindt and her team included 60 men and women who learned to associate pictures of spiders with a mild shock.  The researchers said that this experience created a fearful memory.

Other participants saw the same picture but did not receive an electrical shock.  These people established a "safe" association without a fear response or bad memory.

A day later, people given the drug had greatly decreased their fear response compared with people on the placebo when shown the picture and given a mild shock, according to the researchers.

"There was no difference to the fear spider and the safe spider," Kindt said. "This shows it is possible to weaken the underlying memory by interfering with it."

Kindt said that the next steps are to look at how long the drug's effects on memory last, and testing the treatment in people who actually are suffering from some kind of disorder or phobia.


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